Absolutely prefabulous

Up to 500 million low-cost houses will be needed over the next two decades, and until architects and builders can emulate motor industry mass production the poor will be confined to shanty towns while the rest of us stick to our mock-Tudor paradiseJonathan Glancey
Click to follow
Imagine if the car of your dreams was built by construction industry cowboys. After a year of planning, making cardboard models, organising a mortgage and winning planning permission, a pile of parts, some rusting, some missing, would be dumped in your front garden. Men with bottoms hanging out of their jeans would turn up at random intervals over the next couple of years, drink tea, play Virgin Radio at full volume on a tinny ghetto-blaster splattered in paint and held together with gaffer tape, and bolt bits together inaccurately.

Unseen costs would mount. Odd bits of engine and suspension would work their way mysteriously through the newly painted bodywork. Others would turn up at car boot sales elsewhere. Bits of glue would be deposited on the leather upholstery. Finally, after six months of "snagging" - getting the keys to fit the ignition, rewiring the electrics so that the Colonel Bogey airhorns didn't sound every time the indicator switch was flicked - the car would be ready to drive away from a garden now resembling Chernobyl after the big bang.

For the past 50 years, architects, engineers and inventors have tried hard to conjure new ways of building low-cost housing, drawing its inspiration from the mass-production techniques and ethos of the motor industry.

There have been some brave experiments and a lot of very bad concrete housing on the way, but today, the standards of new housing and new cars are, if anything, further apart than ever. While car manufacturers have invested heavily in research and development, the housing industry has yet to reach the mass-production standards established by Henry Ford and his all-conquering Model T. Ford spent pounds 4bn on the development and launch of its current "world car", the Mondeo; Toyota, the Japanese car giant, spends this amount every year on R&D.

There will be many people who would want to butt in here to say, "hang on a moment; we're British, old chap; we want to live in a mock-Tudor semi, not an outsized, wheelless Nissan Sunny. In any case, we'll have you know that the house of our dreams is a Georgian rectory in an acre or two of rose garden and not a four-bedroomed Mercedes-Benz".

Even so, according to Dr John Miles, Head of Technology at Ove Arup & Partners, the internationally renowned structural engineers, there will, be a demand for between 300 million and 500 million new low-cost homes in the developing world over the next 20 years. Most of these will be abroad. The mass migration taking place from paddy fields to city streets, combined with a rapid growth in real incomes in certain countries - Korea and China, for example - is the pump that will prime the predicted boom in the mass-housing market.

To provide decent homes at affordable prices, Dr Miles argued in a lecture last week at the Royal Academy of Engineering, we need to build houses in much the same way as Henry Ford might have done if his attention had not been diverted by the automobile.

Arup themselves have spent much time over the past 20 years investigating the possibility of cheap, mass-produced housing, but, without ever finding a client willing to go the whole way and invest heavily in some excellent ideas. Until someone does, the world's urban poor are sentenced to live in makeshift homes in shanty towns.

The idea of mass-producing buildings is not a new one. Prefabrication dates back to early 19th century England and its possibilities were celebrated in a truly thrilling manner in Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace of 1851. From the 1870s, the skyscraping office blocks began to rise above the streets of New York and Chicago. Prefabricated steel construction ensured that the Empire State Building was raised in record time. Here, at last, the construction industry met the machine age head on.

Curiously, according to Dr Miles, the construction industry appeared to lose the ability to innovate soon afterwards, and particularly in the field of mass housing. When architects and engineers, including Walter Gropius and Buckminster Fuller, did try to create new forms of ultra-modern mass housing, their attempts were foiled by poor business underpinning; that, and the innovator's need to keep innovating, refining and re-refining a fundamentally good idea until it was either overtaken by events or by an alternative solution.

The prefabs mass-produced in Britain in the wake of the Second World War were cheap and serviceable, but hardly inspired and certainly not beautiful. Some 125,000 prefabs were built to three basic designs (Uni- Seco, Arcon and AIROH), but, although they were remarkably popular with grateful residents, and although some have survived to be listed as buildings of architectural and historic interest, they held little appeal for home- owners, who wanted fake beams, stained-glass ingle-nooks. They still do. Or, at least, because there is no real alternative, house builders continue to churn out Joke-Oak and Neo-Geo villas by the thousand in cul-de-sacs up and down the country.

New mass-production techniques tended to succeed only in command economies, such the former Soviet Union, where consumer choice was an impossible dream. The IMS system, designed in the former Yugoslavia, produced 10,000 "housing units" a year in countries as far apart as Cuba, Czechoslovakia and China. The IMS system provided houses with fully-fitted modular sub- units for kitchens, bathrooms and lift-shafts; unit could be piled on unit up to a maximum of 26 storeys. Low-tech timber houses have long been available in Scandinavia and the United States in mass-produced kit form, but these are not always suitable for climates encountered in the most densely populated developing countries, or are simply too expensive.

Dr Miles argues that the level of investment made in the consumer goods and motor industries has continually raised the standard of, for example, hi-fis, VCRs and camcorders, while at the same time allowing prices in real terms to fall. Where these products aim to be the equivalent of BMWs and Hondas, far too many low-cost houses are the equivalent of "entry- level" cars, for which read Ladas and Polski-Fiats.

The heart of the problem, says Dr Miles, is not a lack of talent or ability amongst architects, engineers and building contractors, but a simple and very telling question of costing. In the construction industry, this equation holds true:

cost of production + profit = selling price

while in the world of consumer products, the equation reads:

selling price - cost of production = profit

What this suggests is that the construction industry does not think of the selling price as a design target in the way designers of consumer products have to. Certainly, prices of buildings tend to rise as they are being built. The British Library, weighing in at a mammoth pounds 500m, and several years late, is only the most infamous and newsworthy example. But, the same thing is true of much housing. The reason, however, that the Neo-Geo and Joke-Oak cul-de-sac house builders have been so successful in recent years is that they do produce houses (all too many of them) with a cost in mind. Like them or not, these oversized doll's houses are, in the terms of the construction industry, as efficiently produced as a hi-fi or VCR.

Luckily, and despite the odd mock-Tudor summer house in Simla and bizarre garden-city estate in Bogot, Joke-Oak and other house-builder heritage nonsense is not readily exportable to developing countries.

Dr Miles and other engineers have their hearts in the right place, and it does seem odd that in 1996 the majority of low-cost houses are as crude in terms of design and construction as the majority of cars produced in the former Soviet bloc. And, although it is hard not to sympathise and agree with Dr Miles's line of thinking, it is equally hard not to think that perhaps what most poor people dream of, from Manila to Mexico City, is the local equivalent of a mock-Tudor semi with stained glass windows and roses around the door.