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Prefabrication's time may come and help us build for the future

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What sort of buildings will we want in the future?

Attempts to answer this question usually result in solutions that are either banal or ridiculous, but it is a question that we need to answer now if we are not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Ken Shuttleworth addressed this issue at the Lignacite lecture last week when he said: 'Are we going to build lots of towers again? Or are we just going to create another set of Ronan Points? How can we know that what we are doing now will continue to be socially acceptable?' Shuttleworth's worry is that the current boom in apartment building may prove to be unsustainable, with demand almost entirely for two-bedroom flats, too many of them built as cheaply, and hence unimaginatively, as possible. The property industry does not have a good track record, typically responding in other fields to shortage by building like mad until it creates a glut. In the case of high- and medium-rise housing, the farsighted are concerned not only about this but also about reviving the spectre of failed 1960s housing.

The system that Arup is developing with Shuttleworth (see pages 12-13) is deliberately non-prescriptive, so that it can accommodate a range of sizes, styles and finishes.

It is interesting, though, that while Arup reckons that concrete is the only answer, Shuttleworth is hedging his bets by working with another consortium on developing a steel system. There were some murmurs at the lecture that Arup's Roger Ridsdill-Smith concentrated on cost and process at the expense of a social agenda, but this was to miss the point. Does traditional brick construction have a social agenda? Does in situ concrete? Arup is looking for an approach to construction that would allow quality at relatively low prices, banishing the cost cutting that threatens the long-term viability of much current development. We should not underestimate the technical and cost barriers that any prefabricated approach has to overcome, not least how one finances the early projects, when the real strength lies in economy of scale. But if they can be overcome, then prefabrication may come of age and allow us to build for a better future.

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