The rise of the flat pack home: are prefabs the key to solving the nation’s housing crisis?

Callum Tasker, from leading online e-tailer Roofing Superstore, a brand of Construction Materials Online, provides insight on the latest disruptive new construction technology, which could be the key to meeting urgent demand for new homes quickly.

There is a new breed of green, affordable homes being widely hailed as a possible solution to the nation’s housing crisis – the prefab. What was once a short-term fix for the post Second World War urgent housing need, where they were designed to only last 10 years and were synonymous with poor quality and cheap mass building, the prefab has undergone a drastic makeover, now having the potential to become the future of urban housing.

Boasting impressive green credentials and constructed offsite, the UK Government has already embraced prefabs (or modular homes) with plans to offer ‘help to build’ incentives for 100,000 ready-made homes, in what is an ambitious effort to solve the housing deficit.

With prefabs already a common sight overseas, particularly in the US and Australia, in the UK the construction method has proved popular amongst self-builders – but is it a realistic solution for affordable housing? Or do we have to look forward to the return of mass produced, poor quality homes becoming a city eyesore?

Clean, lean and green

Prefabs are manufactured offsite, usually in sections that can be easily shipped and assembled, with prices starting from as little as £10,000. As a modern method of construction, prefabs improve building processes by providing developers with more control over engineering standards and quicker completion times – taking on average half the time to assemble than traditional builds.

With both homebuilders and the Government shifting their focus to mass housing, prefabs are seemingly an ideal solution for affordable homes and large housing schemes, due to the fast, accurate, efficient and cost-effective production and building processes involved. Developers also cite the reduced requirement for skilled labour when assembling onsite.

Whilst still an emerging trend rather than a mainstream building process, the quality of prefabs has significantly improved since the post-war period. The prefab manufacturing process means designers have greater precision in terms of material planning, minimising waste and significantly reducing the carbon footprint usually experienced during production.

Most of the structure is also made using precise machine equipment, ensuring conformity to strict building codes and planning regulations, with millimetre precision. More accurate construction, tighter joints and better air filtration are also big benefits, with the main components being created offsite in a controlled factory environment.

Touted as modern eco living, occupants can benefit from significantly reduced energy bills, well ventilated homes, along with the ability to easily customise or modify the basic design of a home – a factor more likely to appeal to today’s prefab self-builder.

Unboxing the build

What was once Churchill’s quick housing fix, could now be the long-term solution to the UK’s housing problems. However, for prefabs to truly be successful on a mainstream basis, it is essential that when building quickly and cheaply, the quality of homes is not compromised. Significant trust needs to be given to the manufacturer, or those constructing the prefab components offsite, to ensure that precision is maintained, with one error having the potential to put the entire build in danger.

Another hurdle to the mass uptake of prefabs is the availability of land, with the construction process being more viable when it comes to the redevelopment of neglected areas, or heavily populated cities, where space is already limited. Transport of prefabs components also needs to be considered, with most of these currently being imported from overseas, adding miles and making them less cost effective.

The vision

Currently only playing a limited role in UK housebuilding, but with increasing pressure to construct more affordable homes quickly and efficiently, prefabs could be the key to solving the issue for both the Government and commercial developers – particularly those who are building homes for rent in urban areas. Offsite construction could provide a significant opportunity to increase housing supply within strict timeframes, without compromising on the quality of a structure, with occupants benefitting from airtight, economical and comfortable homes.

However, there is no blueprint approach to prefabs, with every site being unique in terms of the challenges and requirements it presents to the construction and build process. Despite being quicker, and arguably more efficient, more work is needed to ensure that communication is maintained throughout the prefab supply chain, from the architect and manufacturer, to the contractor and workers.

There is still some way to go before prefabs becomes a mainstream construction practice, with a recent estimate suggesting that fewer than one in six homes employ offsite technologies. However, with demand only set to rise for new homes, prefabs will likely become a common sight in UK cities over the next decade.