THE “PREFAB” is to make a comeback following news that the Government plans to offer manufacturers help to build 100,000 ready-made homes in a bid to solve a looming crisis.
As things stand the construction industry builds 130,000 homes a year at a time when we require 250,000.
The Government wants to build one million new homes between now and 2020. And just as Churchill launched a building programme based on “prefabricated construction” methods pioneered in the US to house people made homeless by the Blitz, it is now looking to manufacturers of modular homes to turbo-charge construction.
It is expected to publish legislative proposals next month that will include measures to encourage banks to lend to firms that build houses off-site.
Housing associations such as the West Midlands-based Accord Group and specialist constructors such as Pocket in London have already had visits from government officials keen to assess a construction method that currently accounts for just 20 per cent of house-building.
Meanwhile insurance giant Legal and General (L&G) hopes to make a big dent in the Government’s target following its opening of the biggest modular homes construction factory in the world on an industrial estate near Leeds costing £55million.
Using 10 production lanes laid out over an area the size of seven football pitches, the factory will turn out around 3,000 homes annually from next year. “It will be like a car production line,” says Nick Frankland, chief executive of L&G Modular Homes. L&G is so confident of this sector’s potential that it has plans to invest a further £500million in similar factories around the UK.
After all, there are a number of advantages to making homes in a factory. “Standard home types are built on site by hand,” L&G points out. “Some are built by craftsmen at the peak of their trade, some are built on Friday afternoons. Some are built with quality materials, some are not. Some are being constantly repaired and require re-work.
“Imagine a home built in controlled factory conditions by highly skilled labour, using computer control and materials and components selected as best-in-class with every home produced being defect free.”
L&G aims to offer a wide variety of housing types, from 20-storey apartment blocks to rows of terraced, semi-detached and detached houses. All modules will arrive on site complete with kitchens, bathrooms, doors, painting and even carpets – all certified as defect free.
Once foundations have been laid its houses can be installed within a single working day by being craned into position, with the modules fitted together like Lego blocks. They can then be customised to incorporate the customer’s choice of exterior brickwork, render or cladding
As L&G homes are made using environmentally friendly cross laminated timber (CLT) they are also energy efficient and can even be built to the rigorous Passivhaus energy-efficiency standard which means residents of a two-bedroom flat could expect to pay as little as £25 a year on gas central heating.
Modern modular housing in the UK is nothing new but it has so far been largely restricted to the top end of the market. Off-the-shelf homes from the German company Hof Haus, for example, start at £500,000 and that is without the site for them.
The beauty of the units being produced by the new wave of manufacturers such as L&G, Pocket and Sheffield Insulations Group is that they are much more cost-effective for administrators of social housing. The latter is said to work out 40 per cent cheaper than a similar home built using traditional methods.
As we have seen, the UK’s first experience of modular homes dates back to the end of the Second World War. With the country facing a housing crisis following the destruction of more than one million homes in London alone and with the prospect of millions of soldiers returning from foreign battlegrounds, Churchill introduced the emergency factory-made housing programme and the prefab was born.
In all, 156,000 of these comfortable but unsightly homes were built from 1944 until 1951 and while they were designed to be merely a stop-gap solution with a life-expectancy of just 10 years, a number of them remained occupied seven decades later.
Eddie O’Mahoney was still living in the prefab on the Excalibur Estate in the southeast London borough of Catford that he and his wife Ellen were offered in June 1946 as recently as two years ago.
At the time he and Ellen took possession of their new home they could hardly believe their luck. “She took one look inside and said, ‘I can get the pram in here. What a lovely hall,’ ” recalled Eddie in an interview with the Daily Express.
He added: “A toilet, we couldn’t believe our eyes. A bathroom – nobody had a bathroom. You went to the municipal baths and queued up. A kitchenette with a modern stove and a fridge, we’d hardly even heard of them. I remember Ellen saying, ‘Eddie, get measuring for the lino. Sign the forms quick’.”
Sadly all but six of the 187 prefabs on the Excalibur Estate now face demolition as it prepares to be redeveloped under a council project to provide 371 new homes. But as one generation of prefabs disappears another is destined to rise from its rubble.