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Selling space in the city: the importance of being a prototype


Scarcely a week goes by without another prototype housing projects being unveiled, and this week's building study, No 1 Centaur Street by de Rijke Marsh Morgan, is one of the finest recent examples of the genre.The appeal of the prototype is clear. It holds the promise of Eganesque efficiency while allowing plenty of scope for the architectural imagination to run wild.

Time and money invested at the design stage will be amply repaid as the project is repeated ad infinitum, with unit costs steadily declining over time.

The strategy works well in the affordable housing market, where higher standards are desperately needed, prices are artificially controlled, and it can be reasonably assumed that, for the foreseeable future at least, supply will always be outstripped by demand.But what happens when the strategy is applied to a private development where 'uniqueness' is the major selling point? The Centaur Street flats command higher prices than similar 'conventional'properties - partly because they are great spaces but partly because they are deemed to be 'cutting edge'. The fact that the developer, Roger Zogolovitch, has plans for further development on a neighbouring site, enhances, rather than detracts from, the idea that residents are 'style insiders', in at the beginning of something which promises to be big.

Theoretically, it could be very big indeed. The units at Centaur Street are designed to be repeated on any given site, and rolled out en masse; stacked either vertically (up to 20 storeys) or horizontally (ad infinitum). A developer's dream - except that there has to be a point where the product ceases to command the premium which comes with being a prototype, and the decline in construction costs per unit is offset by a corresponding drop in price.

The reality is that the economics do not depend on the mass production once implied by the word prototype.The implications of the word have changed. Prototype nowadays is shorthand for any project which is genuinely innovative, architecturally ambitious, not too site-specific and may, at some stage, be repeated. In the contemporary urban housing market, the word has become as essential to the marketeer's vocabulary as 'spacious'or 'prestigious'.

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