PROPERTY / Pre-fab sprouts again: The Microflat is pre-assembled - and extremely small. Nicole Swengley explores the latest singles housing

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The Independent Culture
CHEAP homes for single people have never been a priority for house-builders. With one-person households accounting for only a quarter of Britain's housing market, economic factors have focused developers' minds elsewhere.

Now, figures from the Henley Centre for Forecasting show that the situation is changing: one-person households will represent around 30 per cent of the market by the year 2001. Recognising this new growth area, a London-based company has come up with a solution - a 10ft by 20ft living space, pre-assembled complete with appliances in a factory, which can be erected or dismantled within weeks.

The Microflat combines metal shipping container technology with the fitting-out methods of the car industry and is the brainchild of John Prewer, an architect with 20 years' experience in developing modular buildings. It is an idea with a long history. Back in the Twenties, the architect Buckminster Fuller predicted that houses would eventually be built in much the same way as cars.

In its use of space and steel-and-plastic styling, the Microflat takes inspiration from the motor industry. The ceiling is covered with material similar to a car's roof lining, while the high-level cupboards use a flock-finish material like that of a car's glove compartment. Even the carpets are 'jig' cut, allowing them to be dropped into place rather than fitted conventionally.

The interior has been designed in conjunction with Styling International, a car industry consultancy responsible for the latest version of the Corvette. Like any modern car, the Microflat's interior is designed as a continuous flow of space: the kitchen/diner curves round the shower room, then merges into the sitting room which converts into a bedroom (with double sofa-bed) or office.

Just as your new K-reg can be loaded up with electronic gadgetry, the Microflat's office area is designed to accommodate a fax, lap-top computer and answering machine. The kitchen has all the appliances you would expect in an interior-designed house - except that they are scaled-down to fit the space.

Nobody is pretending that more than one person could live in this tiny, ergonomically designed space. You can chill, freeze, dishwash, cook, microwave and iron without moving more than a couple of feet in any direction.

In its singlemindedly one-person approach, the Microflat caters for the increasing fragmentation of family life - and with a vengeance. By living here you avoid the need to go to the office or launderette, shop more than fortnightly or speak to anyone.

If Microflats are used as their manufacturers envisage - in urban areas where they could be slotted into redundant or unsold office buildings, or used for blocks of student housing or overflow hotel rooms - their practical advantages are clear. But will enough single people - whether unattached, divorced or widowed - want to live in identical, futuristic

rabbit hutches?

A pre-production prototype has been completed and an initial batch of Microflats will be available this autumn. To buy one off-the-peg from the manufacturers is likely to cost around pounds 23,000, plus the cost of transportation and connection to services. Developers will initially sell blocks of Microflats at pounds 45,000- pounds 55,000 - though this figure may drop when production is fully on-line.

Modular building has been around for many years - so what is the difference between a Microflat, with its state- of-the-art interior, and a Portakabin? 'It's the difference between a rickshaw and a Renault Clio,' says John Prewer, 'in terms of performance, materials and ease of use. Unlike most single accommodation units - which can't be stacked more than one floor high because of fire regulations - Microflats can be stacked up to 15 storeys high, side by side. Whole blocks can be erected in weeks.'

A 'Renault Clio' the Microflat may be, but do analogies with the motor industry end there? Perhaps the Japanese will muscle in on the act, maybe the singles property market will succumb to a rash of Ford-quality units, with a few Porsche- style flats for executives. Or will ingrained social convention - and the Great British penchant for individuality - mean that these machines-for-living remain just a gleam in their designer's eye?

Details of the Microflat are available from Trinity Modular Technology Ltd, Suite 113, Premier House, 10 Greycoat Place, London SW1P 1SB. Tel 071-976 8533.