'Darling, what time's the house coming?'


15 January 2011: It’s the end of the road for Prefab housing.
25 January 2011: Prefab housing is the future!

Hang on, people have been talking about this for years. And isn’t it a bit late in the panto season for this ‘Oh yes it is! Oh no it isn’t!’ stuff?

Well, not really. It’s long been a truism that the appeal of the mass prefab estates, built to satisfy post-war housing shortages, had faded. Meant to last a few years, they were pressed into service until they crumbled around the families who were living in them.

But prefab – a cheap efficient way of housing people who need homes – is making a comeback. As residents of South London’s iconic Excalibur Estate battle to save their now-historic homes, news arrives that a more organic, tailored-to-individual-needs prefab revolution may be about to take us by surprise – and green up the housing stock.

It’s easy to laugh off the idea of wanting a home that came on a truck, but this could be more than just a hipster eco-fad. (Treehugger.com is even talking about flatpack schools.)

We all know Britain is in the grip of a housing crisis. It’s harder than ever to get on the mortgage ladder, and even with falling prices the average home costs many times more than the average salary – a gap that has more than trebled in recent decades. With virtually no new build going on at the moment, there’s a danger of a whole new housing shortage to make things even worse. And customers are increasingly looking at energy efficiency as a way of saving on running costs, which is easier said than done in a Victorian pile (or 1940s design classic prefab).

Modern prefabs, on the other hand, start at not much more than £20,000 (plus land, of course) and come with options like renewables, sustainable materials and other eco-design features; they often adopt at least some PassivHaus principles. At prices like these, with built-in energy bill reductions, they’re looking pretty attractive – for many of the same reason they did after the War. And they look good, too. In other words, we may soon be thinking less about new-build and more about next-day delivery.

Of course, the Victorian terraces and mid-century homes will also need to be made more energy-efficient. And there have been debates about the claims of many prefab companies that this kind of building is more green in itself, as their claims are not always backed up by green production methods or materials. But with PassivHaus principles increasingly built into prefab homes, and awareness growing all the time as governments realise they have carbon reduction commitments to fulfil, we think they sound like a pretty appealing idea.

And it’s not some prefab-touting outfit set up yesterday that’s advocating them – it’s the Royal Chartered Institute of Surveyors (RICS).

In fact, you know the idea’s getting near the mainstream when even our own communications manager (not exactly Mr DIY) has been talking for months about buying some cheap land out in Essex and getting German prefab specialists in to knock together an affordable home for his new family.

Traditionally, mortgage lenders have been wary of lending against this type of property,  so the downside was that you had to have access to the cash. But the RICS report reassures us that this is changing:

“Many major mortgage providers are already willing to lend against these structures…meaning that first-time buyers could find them a highly practical way of getting onto the property ladder.”  

But aren’t prefabs little more than ugly blots on the landscape, the building blocks of glorified shanty towns? Well, if  traditional is what you want, here’s one of the more modest low-carbon bungalows we were able to find:

The key question now is: how much is the postage and packaging?