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The possibilities of prefabricated construction have preoccupied architects for the better part of a century, with Le Corbusier's Dom-ino House of 1914 a pioneering concept in mass production.

Nine years later, Le Corbusier looked forward to a time when a house would 'no longer be this solidly built thing which sets out to defy time and decay, and which is an expensive luxury by which wealth can be shown; it will be a tool as the motor car is becoming a tool'. Mass-produced houses, along the lines of the Citrohan House of 1922, would be the result of 'a coalition between architects and men of taste'.

The vision of a prefabricated future remained alive over the next half-century. Walter Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann developed the idea of the 'packaged house', but failed to sell it to the American housing industry even in the aftermath of the Second World War, when new homes were desperately needed.

Buckminster Fuller's Wichita House, which he claimed could be mass-produced for under $4,000, remained a prototype. The Californian Case Study Houses were in effect custom-made one-offs, not models for mass housing. The Zip-Up House, which Richard Rogers imagined being produced by the thousand, remained no more than an interesting idea, though fed into some of Rogers' built projects. 'As industrial products, ' Colin Davies commented in The Prefabricated Home (London, Reaktion Books, 2005), 'these houses were all either failures or non-starters'. The failure of system-built housing, most notoriously the Ronan Point disaster of 1968, set the seal on the prefabrication experiment.

Where Corb, Gropius, Fuller and Rogers failed, however, manufacturers of non-architect-designed prefabricated buildings struck gold. In the mid-1940s more than 600,000 prefabricated houses were being completed annually in the USA and the 'prefab' became for a time a familiar feature of the British urban landscape, some examples even surviving to become listed buildings. The techniques of prefabrication went back, of course, to the 19th century, when at-pack iron churches were exported to British colonies. (Indeed, the Crystal Palace became an icon of industrialised building for Modernists. ) In recent years, the housing industry has wised up to the attractions of standardised prefabricated components, though the end products are generally customised to satisfy buyers' demand for the distinctive and the individual.

When Martin Pawley wrote in 1985 that 'the prefabricated dwelling? is now held in deep execration by the public', Britain was still trying to cope with the failures of system building from the preceding couple of decades. Twenty years later prefabricated housing is back in favour, with a strong push from the government, which appears convinced that traditional sitebased technologies cannot deliver the 4.5 million new homes it is looking for within the next 10 years. The Peabody Trust's Murray Grove housing in Hackney, north London, designed by Cartwright Pickard and completed in 1999, seemed to point the way forward. Using prefabricated modules manufactured by Yorkon (the company responsible for the ubiquitous Portakabin), the 30-apartment scheme was constructed in 27 weeks. Although Murray Grove cost more than an equivalent scheme using more conventional construction technology, Peabody subsequently commissioned Allford Hall Monaghan Morris to design a 61-unit project using the same raw material on the Raines Dairy site in Stoke Newington. PCKO's Barling Court in Stockwell and Wyndham Road housing in Southwark; Proctor Matthews' Baron's Place in Lambeth; and a number of other projects in the pipeline all featured in the recent New London Architecture exhibition Prefabulous London, which promoted the idea that 'the prefab is now an aspirational dwelling which is becoming increasingly desirable'. In fact, all of the above projects fall into the category of 'affordable' or 'social' housing - developers appear as yet unconvinced. The largest modular housing schemes yet completed in Britain are student residences, such as that completed in Manchester by Midlands practice Design Büro in 2001.

In the 1960s, Archigram promoted an expendable architecture of capsules and pods, with a vision of houses being transported freely from place to place and scrapped when done with, like clapped-out cars. As the western world sinks under the weight of discarded fridges, computers and miscellaneous consumer goods, the idea of houses joining the junk heap is less than appealing. Eric Reynolds of Urban Space Management sees the Container City concept as 'a tactic for recycling'. USM's prototype Container City, using redundant freight containers as the basic unit for the mixed-use development, is located at Trinity Buoy Wharf, close to the point where the River Lea ows into the Thames and across the water from the Dome. Trinity Buoy Wharf was the principal workshop of Trinity House, the body responsible for maintaining Britain's lighthouses and lightships, from 1803 until its closure in 1988. The London Docklands Development Corporation acquired the 1.5ha site and invited bids for its development, with a preference for cultural/community rather than commercial use.

A long lease was eventually granted to Trinity Buoy Wharf Trust, with its commitment to fostering creative industries. The trust granted an occupational lease to USM, which has since refurbished the listed buildings there, while constructing three phases of container-based construction, the first two designed by Nicholas Lacey and Partners in 1999-2000. The third, the Riverside Building, was completed last year by ABK. A quarter of the rentals for the studios and live/work units go to a charitable trust which manages the site.

The shipping container was invented by the American haulage operator Malcolm McLean in 1956, when the first container ship sailed from Newark, New Jersey. Within a decade, the container had revolutionised the freight industry worldwide - it's estimated that four million are in use daily in the USA alone.

The typical container is 6m long and 2.5m square, though 12m containers are also in use. The raw material is Corten steel, able to resist the effects of sea water. The dimensions were carefully chosen to fit the typical truck or rail wagon. Estimates of the numbers of containers in existence are hard to come by, but they obviously amount to many millions, and heaps of them seem to lie slowly decaying on the edge of any large city. Britain is a net importer of containers.

Reynolds, a leading figure on the London regeneration scene, questions the logic of manufacturing new modules for projects such as Murray Grove and Raines Dairy when there are large numbers of containers available at modest cost and suitable for reuse in buildings. When the Container City project started, he says, a container could be purchased for £700. Today he is buying containers from China, used once and then sold for around £1,800.

Back in 1999-2000, construction costs for the first phases of the development were around £326 per m 2. The last phase came in at £782 per m 2. Foundations are minimal - around 300mm.

Containers are delivered to the site fitted out with services ready for connection. With costs as low as this, USM is able to rent out space as cheaply as £54 per m 2. 'The containers are cheap, adaptable and transportable, ' Reynolds says. 'We came up with the idea of instant homes for New Orleans after the hurricane - we could have delivered them ready for occupation for £27,000 each, but the idea wasn't taken up.' However, USM has completed a building in Scotland and fitted out the interior of Will Alsop's Fawood Children's Centre at Stonebridge Park, London, on the shortlist for last year's Stirling Prize. It has commissioned ABK for a forthcoming scheme in Lafayette Street in New York City's 'cast-iron district'. British planners can, however, be intractable - Camden Council rejected a scheme for affordable housing at Falkland Road, Camden Town, designed by ABK for a car-park site owned by the council. Reynolds believes that planning difficulties could derail other projects which could deliver housing of quality comparable to Murray Grove at significantly reduced cost. 'We need to go beyond wasteland and derelict gap sites and do schemes on a larger scale, ' he says. 'Local authorities in London have large areas of land which could be developed in this way if there was the will.'

Reynolds describes the approach at Trinity Buoy Wharf as a matter of 'piling up the containers and mining our way through'. ABK came into the project partly because Reynolds is a neighbour of former practice partner Richard Burton, but also on the strength of the series of stations it designed for the Docklands Light Railway in the 1990s. Peter Ahrends of ABK explains that 'we tried to take the system as found and use it in a straightforward way'. Ahrends contends that 'the architectural component of a project like this is fundamental - it's about moving things on.'

Using 'as found' materials is nothing new for ABK. It used woodland thinnings, which are usually burned, to make buildings at Hooke Park, Dorset, in the 1980s. Containers are equally a cheap and neglected resource, but cannot easily be disposed of when not required. Other architects have worked with 'retired objects', as New York practice LOT/EK describes them. LOT/EK's Guzman Penthouse in Manhattan (1996) piled adapted containers on top of an existing loft apartment. A similar New York project by the same practice, the Morton Duplex, made use of, among other objects, containers from petroleum trucks to form sleeping pods.

In a brilliant, though unrealised project for the 2002 Netherlands Architecture Biennale, MVRDV proposed the construction of a 'City Container' for Rotterdam made of 3,500 containers and providing housing, a hotel, offices, a school and other facilities.

The precise role of the architect in projects of this kind remains, however, a little uncertain. At Trinity Buoy Wharf, the contribution of Lacey and then ABK has been to infuse a compositional and spatial order on the buildings. Ahrends admits that, in places, the architects have lost detailed control of the project, one in which there is no room for a traditional view of the architect/client relationship - 'some bits are just wrong, ' he admits.

Reynolds adapts the containers as required by potential users - units can be opened up and joined together and window openings cut as necessary. The relationship with the architects, he says, is one of 'a curious unconventional dialogue'.

Ahrends believes that there is a future for container architecture in Britain and beyond. He was brought up in South Africa and is passionately interested in African issues, acting as an adviser to the South African government for the Venice Biennale 2006 exhibition. There is, he says, a strong case there for recycling containers as housing - 'you could build up to seven storeys high in urban areas without modification.'

The relationship of prefabrication to conventional views of the role of the architect has always been a tense one, and it is ironic that, despite the interest of a series of major architects in the topic, prefabricated building has thrived without the involvement of the profession. 'Architecture without architects' will always ourish, whether architects like it or not. Prefabrication is, and always has been, a challenge to conventional notions of the architect's role. Container City looks good and works well, but it's really a fairly ad hoc collection of parts rather than architecture.

And when containers are specially imported from China for use in building projects, isn't the recycling argument punctured? If containers have to be dismembered to provide spaces larger than those needed for a bedroom or small office, isn't the point of the exercise rather lost? Container City is admirable, not least in the way it provides cheap space for 'creative industries', but it is not the future of architecture.

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