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Counting the cost of a penchant for prefab

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In your coverage of Fielden Clegg Bradley's recently completed project for the Peabody Trust at Lillie Road ('Matter of Trust', AJ 16.10.03) you state that the main effect of the prefabrication has been in the compromised planning of the two-storey town houses. This is apparent, but I would say that the main effect of prefabrication in most cases, and in this case especially, is significantly increased cost compared with traditional construction. We have recently completed newbuild residential projects in central London, in the uppermiddle end of the market, at about £1,000 per square metre compared with the £1,400 you quote for this Peabody scheme. This passes in your article without comment.

We have recently abandoned a prefabricated approach on an affordable housing project in Birmingham in favour of traditional construction, because of increased capital cost. The interest savings accrued through accelerated construction came nowhere near offsetting, in our case, a more modest 15 per cent cost differential.

Your article gives a long list of reasons why prefabrication was used, but most of these don't seem to bear much scrutiny. Are transport costs really lower? Couldn't a traditional route achieve higher quality, if one were prepared to pay 15, 20 or 30 per cent extra for it? I was especially amused by the straw-clutching suggestion that the units could be dismantled and recycled in the future!

A colleague of mine was talking recently to someone from Peabody who claimed they were confident that costs would come down in the long run, and I hope they are right.

Our recent experience is that the volumetric manufacturers, at least, don't seem much inclined to put themselves out.

They have a nice steady income rolling out fast-food drivethroughs and portable site accommodation - what's their motivation?

And one can understand their caution, of course - because we've been here before.

In the early 1960s, increased volume and reduced cost were the nirvana of the first cycle of enthusiasm for prefabrication. My understanding is that, even with massive government support, it was never cheaper than traditional construction; someone please correct me if I'm wrong.Maybe Peabody has analysed the current situation and have figured out why it will work this time around. If so it would be nice to hear from them in these pages.

At the end of the day, does it matter? Well yes, of course it does. One could either get more homes for your money, or you could make them much bigger, or you could make them much nicer. Just one look at the quality of the external works in the photographs indicates how much was left in the 'limited' budget after the prefab experiment had been carried out and the services engineer had managed to cadge some money for his boilers and compact fluorescents. And we don't even see what the interiors are like - which is, after all, surely what such a project is actually about.

Matthew Wood, Norwich

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