A crane lowers a prefabricated wall into place as part of a prefabricated home assembly. Source istock #7289024.

+ Prefabrication is ideal for creating the sustainable, low-cost housing that many countries need today.

I first encountered Ove Arup in 1964 when I was writing my architectural thesis on ‘Cities of the Future’. Later, we worked together on a 1,000-unit prefabrication scheme for the Greater London Council in Hackney and ever since these earliest encounters I’ve been fascinated with the benefits of this approach to construction. Prefabrication has proved its worth in the past and is ideal for creating the sustainable, low-cost housing that many countries need today.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Britain’s aircraft factories turned their expertise to producing prefabs – 150,000 of them in total. The homes emerged from the factories ready for people to move into. Indeed I remember cycling along behind a lorry carrying a prefab bungalow complete with a kitchen that even had a fridge (rare back then) and all the pots and pans hanging up ready to use.

Designed as a five- to ten-year stopgap, some of these prefabs lasted over sixty years. This, together with the fact that they are fondly remembered by many who lived in them, shows we shouldn’t underestimate this approach. Not only do standardisation and short construction times save money; building in controlled factory conditions makes it easier to produce a higher quality product.

Prefabricated houses are vital in places where long, harsh winters make it essential to do as much work as possible off-site. This was the case with the Swedish project I worked on with Ove Arup. The homes’ traditional appearance belied the fact that everything – including the roof and foundations – was prefabricated and lifted into place in one go. This approach reduced costs by 10-20%, and I’d expect similar if not better results today.

Social housing is perhaps most suited to prefabrication, because a local authority or housing association would gain the greatest efficiencies from building on a large scale. It would also offer them an opportunity to tackle the issue of fuel poverty in social housing, making the homes cheaper to run by building in energy efficiency at the factory. For example, we can now incorporate solar panels into façades and make use of thinner-subsoil green roofs that don’t have to be installed on site.

Getting the most out of prefabrication does require a housing programme with standard parts. If you’re manufacturing bathroom units then you need the same sort of bathroom in each house with the same access door in the same position. However, this doesn’t mean that every house would have to look identical. Units could be arranged differently and you could provide different façade options to give each home its own character.

Advances in technology mean we can now prefabricate a much wider range of buildings than the single-storey post-war ‘prefabs’. I know that in New York, Arup is currently working on the world’s tallest modular building. And in London, The Shard used prefabricated elements for its façades – three-storey sections of glass that were hauled into place.

There seems, I’m pleased to see, a growing interest in this way of building. Now it’s time to realise the benefits of prefabrication on a wider scale and create much needed low-cost housing.