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Building a theory

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In 1961 John Habraken published Supports - An Alternative to Mass Housing. In it he suggested separating the permanent building structure from its adaptable fit-out using component building. This would provide some of the economies of batch industrialised production and offer people initial choice and later adaptability in their dwellings. With Age van Randen he later set up a component sourcing/production facility and design service to offer this housing process.

Today, it has the ring of Egan. In 1997 a dti-supported mission - its report just published* - travelled to Finland and the Netherlands to see what has become of such initiatives. The answer turns out to be mixed. Concrete-panel, steel-frame and timber-frame construction are well established. Such industrialisation is common in the private as well as the public sector - one reason for its continued take-up in these countries. But industrialisation is generally aimed at achieving economy in production, not providing occupant choice. Nor is it clear that significant economies are in fact being achieved compared with less industrialised construction methods.

As for Supports, it survives on a small scale. Set up by the academics to build their theory, it is reported to be under-capitalised, its largest- ever job around 100 new and refurbished dwellings. Components such as domestic wiring looms have been developed but others, such as push-fit plumbing, have been overtaken by the likes of Hepworth's Hep2O. Disappointingly, though occupants are said to like the initial design choice, there has not been systematic research on how or even whether the inherent adaptability of the component fit-out system has been used in practice over the years.

If occupant choice is not impressive in these other countries, the mission members are still ready to plead guilty on behalf of uk housebuilders. Culturally, uk housebuilding is more a producer industry than a consumer industry. Following Egan, what should it do to be saved? Impractically, the report suggests that economy and choice through industrialisation will follow naturally if everything else changes - the funding and regulatory climate, the nature of building production, the organisation of design, the attitudes of developers to occupant choice. Like Supports, and much current discussion of the industry, the report wants to isolate a best- practice ideal and build an industry in this image. In practice, a bottom- up evolution seems more likely than such top-down revolution.

Today we are again seeing bottom-up experimentation with industrialisation in housing, motivated by concerns over skills shortages, timely delivery, cost certainty, and the future hope of cost saving. In last week's AJ, for example, we noted modular housing being erected for the Peabody Trust in Hackney. And Arup's involvement in a housebuilding consortium aims to shift as much activity as possible to the factory; seeing housing 'from a product point of view', said Arup's John Lyle. But no mention of occupant choice as a driving force in either case.

Occupant choice is first a matter of developer/designer motivation, not technology. In the son-of-Segal developments that Architype is pursuing (aj 3.4.97), part of the motivation is that occupant choice should be seen as a right, and technology follows. One lesson from Supports' uncertain progress is that it tried to combine the aims of customer choice with economy through industrialisation as though they were naturally synergetic, underestimating the slow development of cost-effective flexibility in manufacturing. Today, if we first focused on offering occupant choice, we might find that our current cost-driven model of future industrialisation will become an inflexible part of the problem, not part of the solution. We may need to redesign industrialisation to provide choice. At least the question should be asked.

* Flexibility and Choice in Housing. David Gann and others. Policy Press, tel 0117 973 8797. 67pp. £19.99

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