Architecture

Thinking outside the box

The new generation of kit houses are not only beautifully designed with luxury in mind, but also superb quality, more environmentally friendly than on-site builds – and startlingly quick to put up. Dominic Bradbury reports

March 06 2012
Dominic Bradbury

Over the past 100 years many architects and designers have tried their hand at the prefabricated home. These modular, factory-built houses have come in all shapes and sizes, from futuristic, space-age dream capsules to little more than low-cost, flat-pack sheds. But now, the whole idea of the prefab house has been radically reinvented and repackaged for the 21st century as a series of innovatively designed and cleverly conceived modular homes find a new and discerning audience.

These are prefabs of fresh sophistication that have been intricately thought through, and have the design and quality of a beautifully engineered car or superyacht. They are usually more environmentally friendly than traditionally built homes and – unlike some of the previous generations of prefabs – can be tailored and adapted according to the needs and desires of their owners. The modular home may have gone up-market, but it is also more consumer-friendly than ever before.

Among the greatest temptations in taking the prefab route to a new home are the twin delights of convenience and control. Anyone who has built a home for themselves, or even extended an existing house, will know that the road to architectural success can be littered with pitfalls, such as spiralling budgets, temperamental builders and long-lost deadlines. With a prefabricated home, which is manufactured in a factory and then brought to site in sections to be assembled according to a set time frame, these pitfalls disappear.

This was a major consideration for Jane and Robbie Weston when they decided to build a second home in France, near Bordeaux. The Westons, who owned three recording studios in London before retiring recently, are based in London, but as flying enthusiasts they started exploring Europe in their Diamond D8-40 four-seater plane. They came across a site for a vacation house on an airpark at Biscarrosse and commissioned a prefabricated, three-bedroomed Huf Haus to their own specification, complete with a Huf-designed hangar alongside for their aeroplane.

“When we first thought of building a house in France, one of our big concerns was how much time would be spent supervising and making sure everything went to plan,” says Robbie Weston. “Our business commitments would have made it almost impossible to spend weeks on end keeping an eye on the building process.

“The Huf solution is perfect. All the design work is done in advance, right down to the smallest detail, and everything is planned and costed before anything is done on site, so when it comes to the actual construction there are no surprises. Instead of weeks and weeks of building work, I was able to spend just one incredibly exciting week watching the house go up.”

The Weston house is one of many high-end Huf Haus designs built over the past few years with a timber post-and-beam structure that is preassembled in the company’s German factory and then put together on site above a pre-prepared foundation. The structure is usually up and water-tight in just a few days, ready for an internal fit-out to a selected specification list chosen at the Huf Haus headquarters in Hartenfels.

In the UK, Huf Haus projects have included a substantial family home, complete with indoor swimming pool, in Weybridge, also characterised – like the Westons’ home – by a sense of openness, transparency and light provided by the large banks of triple-glazed windows that form part of the Huf signature style.

With a network extending across Europe and beyond – responsible for about 8,500 houses so far – Huf Haus was also able to draft in an architect from its French office to gain planning permission for the Weston house, sweeping away another source of stress.

“Huf Haus clients expect value for money and top quality,” says UK director Peter Huf, an architect and part of the third generation of the family involved in the business. “But they also expect a bespoke lifestyle, and Huf houses are custom-designed.”

The combination of a tailored home with an ultra-efficient construction system, provided by a factory-built modular structure, is key to the success of the new breed of designer prefabs. For the Westons, one of the other main attractions of Huf Haus – which start at around £200 per sq ft – was the ability to create a house that would really suit the way they wanted to live.

“While it’s true that Huf houses have a style that is instantly recognisable, every part of the house can be tailored to the owner’s specifications,” says Weston. “For us, that was absolutely essential. Although we decided to only have three bedrooms, we wanted a feeling of space, with the kitchen, dining area and living room areas all open-plan. And as the ultimate expression of our specification we have the first Huf Haus hangar that the company has ever built.”

A number of prefab companies that have spread their wings from Germany and the Continent, such as Baufritz and Stommel Haus (prices on request and £1,650 per sq m respectively), also offer the option to mould a modular design to your own taste. WeberHaus is another long-established German brand that has built more than 30,000 houses, and moved into the UK four years ago, promising houses that are “as individual as you are”. It is as good as its word, offering a wide range of styles – from period-inspired designs to ultra-contemporary homes – all based upon factory-made timber frames and wall panels (from about £1,600 per sq m).

“We do offer exceptional flexibility and don’t want to limit our clients,” says Chris Drury, director of WeberHaus UK. “Our system and experience enables us to produce very different house designs to suit varied preferences. Many clients come to us with their own architectural drawings, which we build from, and others like to work with our in-house architects. It is the client’s dream and the client’s choice.”

Company director Matt Douglas is just taking possession of a WeberHaus in Henley-on-Thames – a contemporary home in a leafy enclave. For Douglas, the project may have been prefab, but it was also a creative collaboration between himself, his own architect and WeberHaus.

“It was very important that we could tailor the design and interiors,” says Douglas. “We used our own architect for the entire design, with WeberHaus providing all the engineering and detail work. This worked well for us, so we have the design features we wanted. One key element is having the single point of management, along with most of the actual work being done by one company. This ensures quality and consistency. Brick and tile is just not the only way forward any more – I’d do it all over again.”

Prefab has certainly come a long, long way to get to the point where it can offer a factory-built, modular system flexible enough to be moulded to individual and distinctive homes. Once upon a time, at the dawn of prefab, it was about creating cheap houses churned out on a production line with little in the way of choice or design quality. In the UK, a generation that grew up in the 1940s and 1950s associated prefab with utility homes thrown up quickly to house a country that had suffered from wartime bombing. In the US, in the first half of the 20th century, Sears Roebuck sold around 70,000 kit houses that were delivered for self-assembly.

Later, pioneering architect Buckminster Fuller experimented with a futuristic, compact prefab house called the Dymaxion House, inspired by thinking from the car and caravan industries. Matti Suuronen thought he was on to something in the 1960s with his Futuro House, a flying saucer in reinforced plastic, delivered to any location on trucks or even by helicopter. But the oil crisis and recession of the 1970s brought down the Futuro, though it went on to achieve cult status.

Many contemporary prefabs have learnt from projects like the Futuro, looking at ways of cutting costs and offering lightweight, portable homes that can be used as second homes, even in more inaccessible locations. English architects Buckley Gray Yeoman invented The Retreat (homes from £59,000), an enticing contemporary cabin that can be delivered to site complete, and is classed as a mobile home under planning regulations. Another English architect, Richard Horden, developed the crisp and concise Micro Compact Home (from €50,400) with German collaborators that can also be easily transported to site and plugged into services.

In the US, Alchemy Architects has developed the WeeHouse on a slightly larger scale, with a high-design content and a reasonable price tag of about $150 per sq ft. Around 25 WeeHouses have been built across the US, many in rural or remote areas as vacation homes, including Scott McGlasson’s family vacation home near Lake Superior in Minnesota.

McGlasson is a furniture designer who helped build the first WeeHouse in 2003. He was able to tailor his design to the needs of the family and the site: “It’s visually stunning from the outside. I love the siding, which is deep red, with horizontal cedar boards that are modern, but old-timey and charming. The living room is very pleasing, with floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors and windows.” He adds, “Over the past two years, with busy teenage children, we haven’t been able to get up there much so we rent it out. The response has been great: modern architecture fans use it during the summer.”

Scott Errin of Alchemy reports a growing interest in the WeeHouse and the numbers of those looking to prefabs as a way to build their own home, while controlling costs and ensuring quality. The Americans, like the Germans, have pioneered prefab technology, creating homes that have all the benefits of modular homes and none of the negative associations that some connect with early-generation prefabricated housing.

When his practice, Marmol Radziner, wanted to develop a contemporary, modular prefab system, American architect Leo Marmol offered himself and his family as guinea pigs. Marmol’s Desert House, in the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs, uses a factory-made modular system, with a structural framework of recycled steel, to create a striking single-storey home arranged around a swimming pool, with a choice of indoor and outdoor spaces and verandas.

The prototype was a success, and Marmol Radziner Prefab has been delivering houses across the US, starting at around $200 per sq ft for a standard model, or from $400 for a custom-made modular house. Marmol suggests that it is not only the design content, convenience and control that bring clients to the prefabs, but also their green credentials. Being factory-made, prefabs involve less waste and fewer transport and delivery miles overall than traditional site-built houses that are put together piece by piece. They also tend to be well insulated with high-spec glazing. Marmol’s own house also has solar panels on the roof and its own well.

“Our typical prefab client is a progressive, eco-conscious client who wants the efficiency of a prefab building, and is interested in our brand of modern, indoor-outdoor living and our green options,” says Marmol. “In terms of being eco-friendly, prefabrication gives you a dramatic difference. There is no question that building in a factory is less consumptive than building on site. That is the marketing approach, and that’s what sells prefabricated houses.”

Marmol also says that design input is king when it comes to new-generation prefabs. Unlike some of their more down-at-heel predecessors, the new modular homes seduce us with the desire to live in them.

Taalman Koch’s ItHouse is another all-American kit home, infused with the spirit of contemporary Californian style. ItHouses cost from $175,000 to $2.5m, and 10 have been built so far, including architects Linda Taalman and Alan Koch’s own retreat in the Joshua Tree National Park, sitting snugly within an extraordinary landscape that the house positively embraces. This is also a prefab with many custom options and choices, and Taalman suggests that the high-design aesthetic of the new generation prefabs is a big selling point.

“Prefab is more like a retail experience where what you see is what you get,” says Taalman. “Many people are uncomfortable with the idea that when they hire an architect no one knows exactly what the finished house will look like. But with the ItHouse it’s very easy for clients to get their heads around it and make intelligent choices about how they want to personalise their home.”

The idea of the luxury modular home is taken a step further with the exclusive, designer house designed by “starchitect” Daniel Libeskind. The Libeskind Villa, developed with German company Proportion, uses techniques borrowed from the prefab industry to create a limited edition of 30 semi-modular houses. Selling at around €2.7m, these are premium villas with a pedigree, designed by the architect behind the World Trade Center masterplan in New York and the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

A prototype villa in Datteln, Germany, built for potential clients to see, has all the trademark Libeskind touches: intersecting volumes, striking geometry and a dynamic roofline that soars to angular points that you could cut a finger on. The zinc-coated house is partly fabricated in a German factory and then assembled by a specialist team on site. Clients are promised regional exclusivity, guaranteeing them the only Libeskind Villa in their neck of the woods.

“Our clients are interested in modern architecture and Libeskind in particular – they want to make a strong statement,” says Michael Merz, managing director of Proportion. “We limited the number of homes to make sure that every single villa is unique and tailored to the client’s needs. People have their own ideas and desires, so while the principal architecture cannot be changed, it is important to address the client’s requirements.”

The prefab home has certainly come a long way in 100 years. Instead of simply being all about volume and conformity, high-end prefabs are now about creating a tailored product around a basic, factory-made structural kit. With all the advantages of prefab stacking up so neatly, the modular home has never had it so good.