Posh prefabs: the future is modular

Elegant, built to last and bespoke — it’s the rise of the factory-made home

What do you think when you hear the word “prefab”? For many, something that looks like a grim concrete bunker or a dilapidated wooden shed springs to mind. This week the government announced plans to make it easier to finance the building of such homes as a way of increasing housing supply, which some papers reported would lead to “a wave of 100,000” going up across the country.

However, far from signalling “the return of the postwar prefabs”, modular homes are often higher quality, more luxurious, ecological and sustainable than those built in the traditional way. Prefabs have officially gone posh.

Tom Bloxham is the chairman of Urban Splash, a development company specialising in regeneration which recently launched “hoUSe”, a modular building concept. He says: “You get much higher quality than in conventional building. Traditional builders rely on an itinerant workforce, working in open conditions whatever the weather. In our factory we have the same guys doing the same jobs in a safe, secure, dry indoor environment. We use high-precision equipment, which doesn’t have to be portable, on a production line to reliably produce high-quality homes to order.”

Urban Splash prefabricated townhouses in Irwell Riverside, Manchester, on sale for £260,000

Urban Splash recently completed a development of 43 two and three-storey modular townhouses in New Islington, central Manchester, and is selling plots and homes on its Irwell Riverside development, also in Manchester, with prices from £260,000. More than
90 per cent of the plots in phase one have already been sold. Shortly it will launch a similar development at Smith’s Dock in Tyneside.

The timber-based houses, which are built as completed pods in a factory in the West Midlands and transported on the back of lorries to be stacked together on site, are 25 per cent bigger than the average British new-build home. They come in 1,000 sq ft or 1,500 sq ft versions with customised layouts. The houses, designed by shedkm architectural practice, have already won awards for their spacious, high-ceiling, modern designs.

Bloxham agrees that modular production could speed up housing supply. His houses take about six weeks to build in the factory and a further six weeks to complete on site. He hopes to reduce this to three weeks in the factory and three weeks on site. “We have a few projects in the pipeline. We want to go from building a few hundred a year to a few thousand a year. I believe that modular is the future. It offers more choice, better quality, faster delivery and addresses the [construction] skills shortage,” Bloxham says.

Marc Vlessing, the chief executive of Pocket Living, a starter-home developer, estimates that the prefabricated system — in which homes are delivered fully fitted from the factory — means that his company can shorten building times by at least a third. For Pocket Living’s proposed 26-storey tower in Wandsworth, south London, which will be launched next year, this could mean a saving of six months.

A Huf Haus show house in Weybridge, Surrey. The German company has been building prefabricated panel houses for more than 100 years and for 15 years in the UK

Modular building is also suitable for small, inner-city sites. Pocket Living is working on two apartment blocks — 70 homes (from £267,000) — on the China Walk Estate in Lambeth, next to the Imperial War Museum in south London. It is a project of the type almost guaranteed to upset local residents. However, Vlessing says: “One of the key advantages of using modular is that we can be in and out as quickly as possible with the minimum of disruption or noise.”

Pocket Living pods are constructed from concrete and steel in a factory in Bedford and transported overnight into London to be bolted together — two 200 sq ft pods per apartment — and then clad in traditional brickwork, so that they have an added layer of insulation and blend with the neighbouring buildings. Each one is “acoustically and thermally incredibly high performing,” Vlessing says.

Pocket Living one-bedroom flats in Lambeth, London, are priced from £267,000

There is no shortage of demand for the apartments, with 80 per cent bought by single professional workers. “There are 1.5 million 20 to 39-year-olds working in London, and only about 12.5 per cent of them can access homeownership. The average first-time-buyer flat in London costs £350,000; the average home is £480,000. It is not affordable. Yet £250,000 is just affordable — about half of our buyers get help from parents or through the Help to Buy scheme,” Vlessing says. “We need more affordable intermediate housing.”

This is where the government’s promise of better finance for prefab developers comes in. “I have been encouraged by the promise of more support for small to medium-sized developers. I hope that the banks can start to become more comfortable with their smaller customers adopting new construction methods,” Vlessing says. The banks will also need to become more understanding when it comes to providing mortgages for those buying modular pods (also called volumetric) or panel (flat-pack) homes, according to Nick Blunt, an architectural designer with WeberHaus, a German prefab manufacturer that builds bespoke flat-pack homes. “It is a very restricted market in the UK. Land is expensive, which has pushed the market towards the top end, where we are dealing mainly with cash buyers, but as the market expands more people will need to borrow money.

A flat-pack home in Donegal, Ireland, by WeberHaus

“Our main problem is land availability. Our UK homes are often built in the gardens of existing properties or in place of properties that are knocked down to make room for them. More serviced plots is what is needed. This is what they have in Germany and Holland,” he says.

WeberHaus builds between five and ten houses a year in Britain, but would like to increase that to 20 a year over the next five years. Prices start at £700,000 for a 3,000 sq ft home, excluding land and ground works.

The prefab market is divided into two: one sector is high-end bespoke properties (such as those produced by Weber, Stommel, Hanse and Huf) and the other is more innovative, affordable homes (Urban Splash and Pocket Living). Dick Shone, the founder of Boutique Modern, has for the past seven years concentrated on the bespoke prefab market, producing luxury volumetric homes (priced from £100,000) from a factory in Brighton.

Shone’s company is working on a glass-sided penthouse floor, which will be lowered on to a top-storey flat in Hove. “It has a kitchen and living room, a slate floor with underfloor heating and a TV the size of a football pitch,” he says. “We put a two-bedroom penthouse on a building in Camden recently. The penthouse wasn’t there when the neighbours went out to work, but it was up when they came back. Done and finished in a day.”

The penthouse was up when they came back from work. Done in a day

Shone also hopes to produce more affordable prefab homes. “We are excited to be considered by our local authority, Lewes, to build affordable rental flats in the Newhaven area. It will enable the local authority to provide stylish and affordable rental accommodation to key workers, young home leavers and graduates who find it impossible to save in this inflated private rental market and therefore to get a step on the homeownership ladder.”

Stommel Haus’s two-bedroom Treetop house is designed for open-plan living

Flats could be produced for £50,000, excluding land and fitting costs. Shone also wonders whether buyers might be interested in prefab “shell-and-core” studio apartments, where the basic building and amenities are provided, but the buyers finish it off. This would keep costs low.

“Prefab is becoming more sexy,” Shone says. So sexy that it may feature heavily in the white paper on housing out next month. This is welcome news after plans by Legal & General (L&G) to create the biggest prefabricated modular homes factory in the world, in Sherburn-in-Elmet, near Leeds, Yorkshire, were reported to be six months behind schedule. L&G hopes the factory will produce 3,000 homes a year, with the first going into a development in Crowthorne, Berkshire.

This year 12 prefab manufacturers were invited to Downing Street to talk about how the UK might replicate what is already the norm in continental Europe. The announcement that there is to be better funding and a push to release more land and serviced plots for prefab and self-build homes means this might come to fruition.

Villa 165, a three-bedroom detached, prefabricated property by Hanse Haus in Frechen, near Cologne, in Germany

Barbara Fischer-Clark, the managing director at Stommel Haus UK, a bespoke luxury flat-pack house manufacturer based in Germany (whose homes start from £350,000), says: “The culture is different in Germany to the UK. In Germany people rent for years, save money and then build their dream home. You buy a building plot with planning permission. This isn’t difficult, and you don’t have to build a house like all your neighbours’ — it doesn’t have to be in the ‘local vernacular’. Finding a plot is the biggest hurdle in the UK, but if the government started to release more land and made planning easier, maybe more people would want to design their own homes.”

A five-bedroom prefab house in Dulwich Village, southeast London is on sale for £3.2 million with Knight Frank

For those that claim that prefab houses don’t have the staying power of bricks and mortar, Peter Huf, the lead architect for Huf Haus UK, says: “Huf houses demonstrate the endurance of the factory-build method, rarely ageing even a century after their original construction and lending themselves to modernisation as and when new technology is devised.”