The age of instant architecture: Can a block of flats built in 48 hours really be safe?

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India, China and even the US have put their faith in high-speed construction, says Chris Beanland.

We're careering headlong into a new age of speed building – an era where, in some cities, you could go away for the weekend and return to find a brand new skyscraper at the end of your garden. Well, if you can get the planning permission...

In India, a 10-storey block of flats has been put up in a record-breaking 48 hours, while in China a succession of tall buildings are being erected in a flash. Instant architecture is invading our collective consciousness.

"We built our latest block in 48 hours. But we can also build quicker than this," says a confident Avneesh Gupta. "And we will." Gupta works for Synergy Thrislington, the Anglo-Indian firm which built the new tower, called Instacon. It was erected in Mohali, a dormitory suburb of the Punjabi capital Chandigarh – one of the last and largest of the late Le Corbusier's mammoth projects, a huge new town swathed in unadulterated modernism. The rigorous and bespectacled Le Corbusier would probably have approved of the precise scientific rationale behind Instacon; but whether he'd have enjoyed its ugly-duckling appearance is more of a moot point.

The walls of Instacon are made from polyurethane foaming (PUF) panels – cast in a factory and screwed together at the site. This is truly Toy Town architecture – but maybe it could be the answer in India, where the housing shortage is chronic. "We're planning in the near future to launch a house that can be built in 20 hours," adds Gupta.

Synergy Thrislington prefabricates 70 per cent of its buildings in the factory, but a Chinese company called Broad can prefabricate an incredible 93 per cent – and it reckons they can increase that figure and eventually build full-sized skyscrapers in a weekend.

Broad built a 15-storey hotel in its home city of Changsha in six days last year and a $17m, 30-storey hotel, just outside Changsha in two weeks. That hotel, the T30, opened last month.

"We build so fast to avoid rainy days. Another reason is time is money," says the company's spokeswoman. But would you sleep soundly in a cut 'n' shut skyscraper?

"The buildings were tested at the second largest earthquake-testing platform for Magnitude 9 earthquake resistance." And what about the safety of the builders in this wacky race to the top? "There is no better worker-friendly environment than ours in the world – it's water-free, dust-free and with no welding on site," claims Broad.

The company is reaching for the stars in its "anything goes" homeland. It wants to build the tallest skyscraper on earth – and it believes it can do it in six months, a fraction of the three and a half years it took to build The Shard or five years it took to build the current tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

If it materialises, the 220-storey Sky City in Changsha could radically alter the way we think about instant architecture.

Buildings that pop up from nowhere are nothing new – fast-food chains have been using even faster building techniques for drive-thru outlets for decades. New restaurants arrive on two flat-bed trucks and are bolted together. Shelters for disaster relief and military base camps can also be erected in a matter of hours.

But prefabrication can have a dark side. The last time we were wooed by the promise of speed was during the hair-raising housing boom of the 1960s where Labour and the Conservatives played a kamikaze game of one-upmanship over who could build the most number of flats the quicker.

Science got us drunk and sweet-talked us – but it couldn't keep its promises. So called "system building" techniques were fast and cheap – local councils bought whole tower blocks off the shelf; corruption and shoddy construction ran rife. The concrete panels weren't always cast correctly, the workers didn't always screw them together right and the wholesale flogging of the systems (including occasional bribery) by construction contractors, rather than by architects with reputations to preserve, damned many system-built blocks. The sorry saga of the mistakes made on Tyneside by Thomas Dan Smith's administration was the main inspiration for the seminal BBC drama Our Friends In the North.

And it was in Newcastle that experts were to discover the huge hidden problem. Newcastle University building sciencecepartment professor Alex Hardy spoke of the problems of "innovation without development – the greater the innovation, the greater are the risks," in documentary maker Adam Curtis' stark The Great British Housing Disaster in 1984. The film showed shocked viewers how corners had been cut and how system-built estates like Hunslet Grange in Leeds were literally falling apart – and had to be demolished.

So are we forgetting those lessons of prefabrication in this new rush to build quicker? "Prefabricated systems can be a good way to build quickly and efficiently, but you still need an architect to ensure the final building is appropriately oriented and designed," says Christine Murray, editor of the Architect's Journal. "There are no one-size-fits all solutions, as every building site is unique."

"It's just a kind of engineering. Prefabricated building began in the 19th century," cautions Chris van Uffelen – an art historian who's written books on plastics and new forms of architecture. "Whether it's good or not depends on whether the architects combine the techniques with artistic expression." He adds: "The recent examples in China and India have been built much faster than was previously possible thanks to more manpower combined with professional organisation."

But van Uffelen is fond of one example of instant architecture: the plan for AdAPT in Kip's Bay, New York.

"The technique has been put to much better use and is even more efficient here," he reckons. Designed by nArchitects, AdAPT will be New York's first prefab high-rise, comprising 55,300sq ft modular flats stacked on top of each other.

It'll be built on the hoof – yet New Yorkers will still have to wait until 2015 to move in. And, unless someone puts the brakes on, by then the new Chinese and Indian pioneers of the Wild East will have built an untold number of instant skyscrapers.

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