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What is prefabricated construction?

Modern methods of construction have been around since the Second World War, providing the industry with an efficient, reliable, affordable and sustainable building technique [1]. I explored this paradigm during the Housing Alternatives module and learnt that this construction method addresses the current housing shortage in the UK, the lack of skilled workers and the need for light weight sustainable construction materials. Manufacture takes place off-site in a factory and is then transported to site up to 95% complete [2].

Fig.1 – Prefabricated modular element being craned on site

 

Do the pros outweigh the cons?

Some of the main advantages relate to the environmental and economical aspects within the construction industry, arguably the most important factors for both builders and clients. Since the majority of construction takes place inside an indoor factory, there is little variation in cost once the job has begun and also little chance of delay due to weather conditions. Whilst the low waste element of this construction method is highly favourable to those concerned with the environment [3]. On the other hand, the disadvantage to smaller businesses is the initial set-up costs which comes with creating a bespoke factory. There is also the risk that the success of the build rests almost entirely on the safe transportation of the prefabricated elements to the site.

Fig.2 – Fab House in North Shields

 

Too mainstream for Sweden

With Sweden using prefabricated construction for 45% of its new home builds and having the highest percentage of factory built wooden houses in the world [4], it is a perfect place to look for a case study. Dortheavej Residence, an apartment block comprised of cross laminated timber spanning 5 storeys in a deprived area of Copenhagen [5]. For this project, prefabricated modules were used to cut costs and provide high quality housing for low income residents. This was achieved by stacking each module in such a way to create balconies and extra ceiling height.

Fig.3 – Dortheavej Residence, Prefabricated Apartment Block in Sweden

 

Alternative or Mainstream?

There has been much contradiction around whether this really is a viable technique to be made mainstream in the UK, still being referred to as an alternative housing model. It has also become clear that there are both advantages and disadvantages to this modern method of construction, however there are enough successful schemes to prove that this technique does have its place in the construction industry.


References:

[1] Kempton, J and P. Syms. (2009). Modern methods of construction. Structural Survey. 27/1: 36–45.

[2] Science and Technology Select Committee, 2018. Off-Site Manufacture For Construction: Building For Change. London: House of Lords, p.253.

[3] Brinkley, M., 2016. What are the Advantages of Prefabrication?. Home building and Renovating, [online] Available at: <https://www.homebuilding.co.uk/what-are-the-advantages-of-prefabrication/> [Accessed 22 May 2020].

[4] Marshall, J., 2019. Should the UK look to Sweden to solve its housing crisis?. [Blog] Building, Available at: <https://www.building.co.uk/focus/should-the-uk-look-to-sweden-to-solve-its-housing-crisis/5097380.article> [Accessed 22 May 2020].

[5] Hernández, D., 2018. Homes for All – Dortheavej Residence / Bjarke Ingels Group. Archdaily, [online] Available at: <https://www.archdaily.com/903495/homes-for-all-dortheavej-residence-bjarke-ingels-group> [Accessed 22 May 2020].

 

Figure List

Feature Image – Smiths Dock. (n.d.). Prefabricated Module in a Factory. [image].

Fig.1 – Mister concrete. (2018). Prefabricated modular element being craned on site. [image].

Fig.2 – Smiths Dock. (n.d.). Fab House in North Shields. [image].

Fig.3 – Hjortshoj, R. (2018). Dortheavej Residence, Prefabricated Apartment Block in Sweden. [image].

2 responses to “Should prefabricated construction still be classed as ‘alternative’?”

  1. Thank you Nadine for the well crafted blog. I have been reading articles in China in regards of prefabricated infrastructures. In the midst of pandemic, the government of China has produced hospitals made out of modular structures in manner of less than 2 weeks to receive corona positive patients (Tallman, 2020). The use of prefabricated modules were used to have a quick construction and installation. The units are positioned on each pillar to stabilised from the ground. Each units are measured around 10 sq.m which accommodates with 2 beds. Since each of the room are close knitted and compact, to minimised the risk of spread of infection, each rooms are depressurised and installed ventilation systems fitted into the building (Gonzales, 2020).

    The fast nature of building this infrastructure was a laborious one. The construction workers in Wuhan worked in shifts through day and night to layout the foundation, formation of concrete bases and using cranes to position the prefabricated modules into place (Block, 2020). The manual power was greatly collaborated with people in Wuhan which their participation has been admired to lessen the risk of further infections. Moreover, workers do not have to travel further to see their families in other neighbouring provinces (Tallman, 2020)

    To answer your question, is prefabricated construction an alternative or mainstream construction? I personally consider it as an alternative solution for quick response on building something out of necessity. The principle of prefabrication provides a quick remedy of the lack of resources and infrastructure due to abrupt need because of the pandemic. In addition, developers can build the infrastructure within days which is economically beneficial as it requires less time building and less time for manual labour work.

    Block, I., 2020. Coronavirus Quarantine Hospital In Wuhan Completes In Just Nine Days. [online] Dezeen. Available at: < https://www.dezeen.com/2020/02/03/coronavirus-hospital-complete-wuhan-china-news/> [Accessed 23 May 2020].

    Gonzales, M., 2020. China Builds Coronavirus Emergency Hospitals With Modular Construction. [online] Cleanroomtechnology.com. Available at: < https://www.cleanroomtechnology.com/news/article_page/China_builds_coronavirus_emergency_hospitals_with_modular_construction/162043> [Accessed 23 May 2020].

    Tallman, E., 2020. Behind The Scenes Of China’s Prefab Hospitals Against Coronavirus – Medicalexpo E-Magazine. [online] MedicalExpo e-Magazine. Available at: < http://emag.medicalexpo.com/qa-behind-the-scenes-of-chinas-prefab-hospitals-against-coronavirus/> [Accessed 23 May 2020].

  2. Thank you for sharing, Nadine! I do think that in the current climate of the housing shortage in the UK, it is about time modern methods of construction such as prefabricated houses are incorporated within housing strategies. At the moment, the difference between the current housing stock and the number of houses required for adequate housing for everyone, stands at over one million homes [1].

    The increasing popularity of modern methods of construction is allowing for the expansion of its sector within the construction industry. More recently, the expansion is in regards to the development of prefab factories, some of which will be able to produce 25,000 homes each year [2]. With the government’s pledge to deliver 300,000 new homes a year to address the under-supply of homes across the country [3], it is clear that prefabricated construction provides an opportunity to produce houses at a mass scale which should well be considered as part of the housing crisis’ solution. Additionally, prefab homes can be built in factories whilst foundations are simultaneously installed on-site, allowing for construction time to be cut by half when compared to traditional construction [4].

    The government is currently not on track to meet its goal of 300,000 new houses annually, with the average number of houses built between 2005-6 and 2017-18 being 177,000 [5], and less than 174,000 being built in 2019 [6]. A future of adequate housing supply is therefore unrealistic and unachievable without the consideration of more efficient construction models such as prefabrication.

    References
    [1] Gompertz, S. (2020) Housing shortage: Scale of UK’s housing gap revealed, Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-51605912. [Accessed on 22/05/20].
    [2] Shanesy, L (2016) New Prefab Factories in the UK Will Build 25,000 Homes a Year, Available at: https://www.architectmagazine.com/technology/new-prefab-factories-in-the-u-k-will-build-25-000-homes-a-year_c. [Accessed on 22/05/20].
    [3] Wilson, W. & Barton, C. (2020) Tackling the under-supply of housing in England, House of Commons Briefing Paper, Commons Library.
    [4] Bertram, N., Fuchs, S., Mischke, J., Palter, R., Strube, G. & Woetzel, J. (2019) Modular Construction: From projects to products, McKinsey & Company.
    [5] Brady, D. (2019) Government ‘will struggle to meet housebuilding target’, Available at: https://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2019/06/government-will-struggle-meet-housebuilding-target. [Accessed on 22/05/20].
    [6] Gov.co.uk (2019) Number of new homes built soars to an 11 year high, Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/number-of-new-homes-built-soars-to-an-11-year-high. [Accessed on 22/05/20].

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School of Architecture
Planning and Landscape
Newcastle upon Tyne
Tyne and Wear, NE1 7RU

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Email: nicola.rutherford@ncl.ac.uk


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