Think of modular housing and the image most often conjured is either that of the brilliance of 1960s Japanese Metabolism, the enthusiasm of the 1976 Montreal Olympic Village or the more dismal British school buildings in the '60s. Admittedly, the 'modular' brand has returned somewhat since the late 1990s, with the fad for stacking old containers and calling them keyworker accommodation, but it is still suspected of being a bit dated.
However, a more aesthetically pleasing modular construction is making its way over from Europe. Called 'Option', for obvious reasons, it allows, to a certain extent, a flexibility in its out-turn design and external appearance to suit the client's living requirements and the requirements of the site. It is manufactured by WeberHaus, a company set up in the 1960s in Germany and currently starting up a UK office to improve its visibility in the British prefab market.
But, as managing director Dr Ralph Mühleck says, 'this house is for individuals looking for the extraordinary', and at around £84,000 for the basic house, including kitchen, bathroom, wooden flooring and heating 1, even though it is out of the reach of your average architectural journalist, it is affordable for many on a middle income.
Build quality The basic version is a single two-storey house: wood cladding on the outside, floor-to-ceiling windows on all four sides and an internal open-plan layout.
The living room, dining area and kitchen are on the ground floor, with the bathroom, landing and two bedrooms on the top floor. That is all there is to it.
The timber structural frame is delivered to site in pre-fixed and finished panels, so that the shell can be erected in one day by two or three labourers.
The sizing of the glazed panels is such that modular combinations can be achieved. Taking out the window and abutting another unit alongside, for example, allows the house to be extended relatively easily.
But, while the slenderness of the single-module structure (at around 4.13m) makes it ideally suited to the type of tight urban site you might see on Grand Designs, it is maybe not such a great physical parameter if you want to extend sideways. But that is not a dilemma peculiar to modular housing.
By opting for a linear extension, using a single-storey module attached to the rear, the living room doubles in size and a roof terrace is created, accessed from the back bedroom. However, more consideration needs to go into the way the front entrance decking and steps are handled, as it currently looks a little crude and not at all in keeping with the rest of the building.
Internally, however, the spaces appear 'modern', spacious, very well daylit and highly insulated. Incorporating solar panels on the roof as standard, together with rainwater-recovery systems, the complete modular system has won the International Design Award and the Euro Solar prize.
The Option module is a simple but well-designed series of spaces, enhanced by the quality of the workmanship, finishing and top-quality fixtures and fittings, ranging from a Philippe Starck handbasin and WC, to real wood floors and a 'state-ofthe-art' (if that is not something of a contradiction in terms) wood-burning stove. Glass tiles, floor coverings, ironmongery and taps are catalogued to allow the client choice in the overall appearance of the finished article. The external cladding can also be specified.
Upstairs, the main bedroom is separated from the other room and the head of the stairs by a sliding screen. This screen doubles as door to the wardrobe, so, while ingeniously optimising space (in the spirit of caravan design), when closing the bedroom door you inadvertently open the cupboard. Maybe only tidy people need apply.
That said, in terms of appearance, timescale, capital and running costs, this type of housing could salvage the impugned reputation of modular construction and lead to the much-vaunted resurgence of speedy, attractive and desirable dwellings. There are, however, some twee, 'gingerbread-style'house types on offer too, so we should not get carried away with modularisation or prefabrication automatically resolving the UK's design problems. But the style of the Option model should at least begin to confuse the British notion that prefabrication techniques in general, and modular production in particular, remain characterised as belonging to the low end of the market.
Contact Hans Kohl of WeberHaus UK via email at info@weberhaus. co. uk