Absolutely Prefabulous

It is one of our favourite national pastimes to stamp our mark on the properties we buy – just ask the manufacturers of reproduction, country-cottagey, wooden front doors. Going out and buying a new front door is one of the quickest and cheapest ways to turn a home into a castle.

As housebuyers, once we have sunk our life savings into a property, we then use every spare penny of our earnings to customise the spaces inside: knocking walls through here, adding an extension there… we’ve all seen it: a perfectly fine old house mutilated on a whim.

The home of the future may remove the need for domestic DIY battlegrounds. It will be smart, secure and totally suited to our needs. No bricks, no builders: these homes will be made in factories.

If our home lives are about to change as radically as many people claim they are, the homes we build need to change too. In this country, where a large part of the housing stock is either old or new but made to look-old, we are hopelessly ill-equipped for changes in the way we use our homes. It isn’t just the on-line, homeworking, e-population that demand change; the elderly and disabled either suffer in unsuitable surroundings or have the expense and hassle of having them put right.

Few people in the UK have gathered as much knowledge about the evolving home environment as Professor David Gann of the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University. “We are moving in very fluid times in terms of how we experience our built environment, particularly indoors,” said Gann at a recent conference on future housing. “There are more of us who are having to spend longer in housing, especially as the population ages, and we’re carrying out more diverse activities indoors. So what we require is an understanding of this indoors as a responsive, multi-functional environment, a means of providing services.” These include shopping, banking, education and healthcare. “We need to think about it as a delivery system for living. We are moving from a machine age, where physical functions of what we do and make dictate what a built environment looks like, to an information age where we can be much more flexible.”

This kind of language applied to offices is not new. By applying it to homes, while restraining thoughts of a TV-centric, couch potato population, it releases new trains of thought not only for housing designers, but also for designers of the furniture, fixtures, consumer products and domestic appliances that go into houses. Thinking about the home from the inside-out, as a package including the things we handle around the home to the floorplans and the structure, could revolutionise life for millions of homeowners.

Gann’s vision of the home as a “responsive, multi-functional environment” is taking shape in two prototype home projects in York and Edinburgh. Scottish Homes and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) are sponsoring the Building Research Establishment to explore “smart home technologies”, systems that help control the security, comfort and climate of the home. “We want generic technologies,” says Gann, “the sort of thing where, when you go to your car and press the electronic key, you know the doors will unlock for you. We want that level of simplicity in the home.”

But the home of the future is not just about labour-saving electronics. A predominant theme of the conference – Rethinking Housebuilding at the RIBA, organised by the JRF – was that of offering consumers the kind of choice in the design of their homes that they enjoy in consumer products. Prefabrication – a dreaded word in the UK – could be the key to choice and flexibility, offering British consumers the chance to personalise their properties that they clearly yearn for. Forty years ago, Alison and Peter Smithson talked of the home as the ultimate consumer product, and Dr John Miles of Ove Arup revived the concept of homes as permutations of prefabricated units, customised in the factory to their owners’ specification.

The hang-up in this country about prefabs is with quality. Miles was able to counter the grim associations with decaying tower blocks and “living in a box” urban hell with pictures of executive home projects in Japan. All assembled from strong, steel-framed units, they offered the occupants wide open living spaces and an extraordinarily high quality of interior fit-out and finishes. “In these projects,” said Miles, “the home is thought of as a fully-integrated product: interior and exterior are designed totally seamlessly, and relate to each other.”

In one high-rise executive project under construction, even the kitchen units are part of the system; the dimensions of the housing modules have been generated as multiples of the measurements of the drawers in the kitchen units. Fundamentally, everything fits.

Predictably, it is in Japan that, as Miles put it, the “electrifying potential” in designing homes is furthest advanced. Gann has made several fact-finding trips to Japan, where manufacturers, not builders, construct homes and where consumers enjoy the kind of choice and freedom that British homeowners might only dream of.

Toyotal, for example, is a huge prefab manufacturer. The level of research into performance of materials and environments puts our builders of mock-Jacobean mutations to shame. Seki Sui Housing Corporation, the world’s largest prefab housebuilder, has built a research complex employing 400 scientists, engineers and designers. It tests new materials, such as the Space Shuttle compound it hopes to use in high-strength cladding panels. It tests thermal performance, acoustics and structural stability.

But it doesn’t stop at the structure. In Seki Sui’s ergonomics centre, designers are able to test their interiors for use by the elderly, disabled, visually-impaired and even pregnant women by trying on a range of inhibiting prosthetics. Crucially, they also involve consumers in the development of user-friendly domestic environments (something that sounds so obvious, it is a wonder no developer in the UK does the same). Customers are invited in to experience conventional environments and rooms under development from a disabled or elderly person’s standpoint, and receive an education on the shortcomings of traditional design.

Gann also quotes the example of Toto, Japan’s largest sanitaryware manufacturer. In a “lifetime lab” for developing barrier-free interiors, a bathroom rig allows users to adjust the position of walls, floors and surfaces in relation to the bath, lavatory and washbasin, and to relocate fixtures to fit their individual needs. In other test areas, designers can assemble room sets and assess lighting and other aesthetic parameters.

The upshot is that the customers of these companies are more demanding of their home environments. Homebuyers in the UK take what they are given, which isn’t very much. But high quality, durable prefabs are not so remote a prospect. There are well-established UK prefab manufacturers serving the retail and leisure industries.

Using 3D CAD systems already commonplace in design studios and virtual reality simulations, housebuyers could make choices about fixtures and fittings before their home is built. According to Gann, Toto runs a touch-screen system that takes people’s bathroom dimensions and allows them to mix-and-match thousands of different products and colours. When they are happy, they receive a photorealistic print out of their future bathroom.

It all seems a long way off from the average, middle of nowhere mass-produced estate. There are many cultural barriers in the UK to prefabricated, custom-built housing. But a brand new initiative called 2000 Homes aims to present the possibilities to consumers and rouse our sleepwalking housebuilding industry. The RIBA, the JRF, the Housing Corporation and a range of others are aiming to reward and promote innovation in projects leading up to the millennium.

There were no interior or product designers at the JRF’s conference or 2000 Homes launch. But for consumers to be offered safe, energy-efficient, accessible, responsive, flexible environments in the future, designers accustomed to a user-led approach have to establish partnerships with manufacturers and builders. The 2000 Homes project opens the door to designers of the future domestic landscape.

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