For at least two generations of British architects, the word 'prefabrication' and the phrase 'system building' have carried overtones of crude design, crude construction, technical and social failure, and opprobrium for the entire architectural profession. No wonder most of the profession has steered clear of anything which sounds like the construction equivalent of fast food. And yet . . . we all know that housebuilding, in particular, has always depended on the installation of pre-made elements, and that it is only the proportion of the house made off site which has been a matter for debate.
Attitudes are changing, however, and, as this column argued last week, one effect of the Egan report is to throw a harsher spotlight on the benign possibilities of what I describe as 'smart- assembly' buildings, that is to say buildings where the specification may be of whole units rather than individual components, and where speed of assembly is far less important than the factory time taken to produce elements to the highest standards (cf Corb, house as car chassis, 1926). Equally, for manufacturers of smart- assembly buildings, the speed of delivery and assembly will become significantly less important than their ability to import flexibility and refinement into their manufacturing methods, ie the one-size-fits-all mentality will have to go.
A conversation at Geoffrey Reid Associates (which is working on three Egan demonstration projects) suggested that we have moved a long way from a simplistic attitude towards smart assembly. Why build on city-centre sites when you could assemble? Why become obsessed with product when what is important is the approach? Why assume that prefabrication necessarily means cloned buildings? What effect does prefab have on tenders? What skills are need for the specification of complete units rather than single elements? And so on. Certainly, to be successful, Egan buildings will need just as much architectural input in aggregate, but different in approach and at different points in the building cycle. This presents an opportunity, not a threat.