Absolutely prefabulous: Eco-living has never looked this good thanks to a new wave of prefabricated palaces

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Assembled in days, delivered in one shipment and boasting the latest advances in eco-living: is it any wonder the world's leading architects and designers are re-evaluating flat-pack living for the 21st century?

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Sweden has friggebods, New Zealand's are known as "bachs". To Canadians, they're simply cabins. Call them what you want, but these small hideaways in the wilds have had a recent green makeover thanks to advances in prefabrication techniques and renewable- energy technology. Few of us can justify a second home when resources – financial and environmental – are in short supply, but these six modular marvels, the best designs from around the world, make the idea of buying a parcel of thinking space somewhere beautifully uninhabitable, much more reasonable.

There's nothing new about bijoux buildings. Le Corbusier designed the Cabanon for himself, a 172sq ft cabin on Cap Martin that he described as "my smallest machine for living in" and his "castle on the Riviera". Henry David Thoreau built his own cabin by hand, "half a dozen rods" from Walden Pond. But you don't even have to do that today; contemporary prefabs (prefabricated homes, made in advance) are built in factories and either trucked whole or as panels to your plot of land. The process, at every stage, is more eco-friendly than site-built homes. In the factory, streamlined manufacturing means minimal waste; insulated panels can be cut precisely to tolerances of one-16th of an inch. As Rod Gibson, the New Zealand-based designer of the Habode, puts it, prefabrication treats housing as motor manufacturing: systematised and broken down into efficient processes. And everything can be delivered to the site in one shipment, minimising the number of journeys made by construction workers. Gibson's Habode can be assembled in three days, the German-made Huf Haus, which found fame on Channel 4's Grand Designs, took just six days to put together.

The best of these prefabs can be self-sufficient in their idyllic locations, catching sunlight and wind for energy, siphoning fresh air for ventilation and rain for watering herb gardens. "There are many beautiful places that are still uncommercialised," argues Gibson, and the modern, low-impact prefab, which leaves little evidence of its presence and demands little of its surroundings, could be one way to enjoy such natural places. In California, itself grappling with water shortages and heatwaves, Alicia Daugherty of Marmol Radziner and Associates agrees: "Our prefabs are suited for areas where it is otherwise difficult to build."

In Canada, Form & Forest's modern take on the log cabin is designed for remote locations where access is difficult. "The nature of these locations," says Form & Forest's director of design Ryan Jordan, "means construction materials and skilled labour are scarce, creating an ideal environment for prefab construction."

The financial crisis has slowed prefab's progress but also created opportunities. "Second homes are a luxury that people tend to delay purchasing in an uncertain economy," says Jordan. "But the upside is that people are becoming more aware of the joys of simple living and the possibilities of smaller dwellings, which is what prefabs are all about."

More people, that is, unless you're British. In Britain, prefab has less appealing associations: damp classrooms from the 1970s, cheap postwar accommodation, rainy summer holidays in static caravan parks. But even here it seems that prefab's tide is coming in. In May, the first BoKlok show home opened to the public at St James Village, Gateshead. Co-owned by Ikea, BoKlok is a full-size prefab house intended for suburban living. In the same month, in the US, housing giant Clayton Homes launched the i-House, a mid-sized prefab (minimum area 992sq ft with extra modules available).

With all new homes in the UK required to be carbon-zero by 2016 and mortgages set to be dispensed more stringently, eco-friendly prefabs are seen as an affordable housing alternative. Last year, Barratt Homes unveiled plans for a "green" village of prefabs at Hanham Hall near Bristol, while the RuralZED prefab, from Bill Dunster's ZEDfactory, the people behind the BedZED (the Beddington Zero Energy Development) in London, is the first zero-energy prefab in Britain.

"Prefab will become more widespread when there is enough volume to bring pricing down," predicts Alica Daugherty from her office in Los Angeles. Until then, think small, affordable (prices are dependent on options and delivery but range from about £49,000 for the iPAD to about £110,00 for Marmol's Rincon 5) and self-sufficient. Here is our pick of six of the best from around the world...

Six of the hottest prefabs

André Hodgskin (New Zealand)

iPAD (538sq ft)

After producing the pioneering Bachkit in 2000, the sleek prefab that swept away the hand-me-down look of the traditional New Zealand holiday home, architect André Hodgskin's latest "kitset" house is the smaller but equally smart iPAD. Like the Bachkit, the minimalist iPAD comes with foldaway fittings and single modules can be added together to form L-shaped or linear buildings around enough decking for the largest of barbecues. Already they're venturing from their native shores; one is on its way to a Fijian beach in a 40ft shipping container.

Marmol Radziner (USA)

Rincon 5 (660sq ft)

The Los Angeles-based architects Marmol Radziner launched the Rincon 5 modular home last year; the first four Rincon single-unit prefabs were locked together to form Leo Marmol's own prototype L-shaped Desert House, set around a pool and fire-pit near Palm Springs. The long, low modules are packed with eco-friendly features: FSC-certified (Forest Stewardship Council) Ecotimber bamboo floors, recycled denim insulation, LED lighting, floor-to-ceiling dual-pane windows, non-toxic Green Seal paint and formaldehyde-free MDF. "They can be set up for off-the-grid living," says Alicia Daugherty of Marmol Radziner, with solar panels and, where possible, geothermal heating. Nine of the firm's prefabs have been completed; locations include the Napa and Sonoma valleys, Mendocino County, Malibu, Desert Hot Springs and Utah.

International Housing Solutions (New Zealand)

Habode (861sq ft)

Rod Gibson is a typically resourceful Kiwi inventor. Leaving stylistic flourishes on the drawing board, he produced the steel-framed Habode. It fits into a 40ft shipping container, can be installed in three days, is rated for a cyclone-strength storm and lasts for 50 years. What's more, he says, "Habodes can be relocated in five or 10 years with little or no footprint left behind." The buildings are even recyclable; glass and the paint-free Cor-Ten steel, which weathers to a rust-coloured finish, can be melted. The Habode is a bach (as in bachelor), that iconic New Zealand holiday home often sited near a favourite beach or trout-fishing river. "All the necessary conduits and plumbing required for self-sufficiency are built into the Habode's DNA," says Gibson. Basic and rugged, bachs are, in Gibson's words, "retreats from day-to-day living". '

Form & Forest (Canada)

Trapper (738sq ft)

Undaunted by the global financial turmoil, Form & Forest launched earlier this year in British Columbia, counting on the idea that the appeal of a quiet spot in which to contemplate the stars out of range of a mobile-phone signal will always grow. They hired fellow Vancouverites D'Arcy Jones Design to produce a range of cabins that ship as pre-assembled panels. "This is ideal for delivery on difficult roads," says Form & Forest's Ryan Jordan. The Trapper is the single-unit prefab, built around a large courtyard with an open plan living-room and one bedroom. The cabins can withstand a Canadian winter: "Cross-country skiing from your back door is reason enough for us to build these with energy-efficient doors, windows and wood stoves," says Jordan. A show-cabin is being built near Golden in the Canadian Rockies.

Jonas Wagell (Sweden)

Mini House (161sq ft)

Swedish friggebods – pocket-sized clapboard contructions in the abundant Swedish wilderness – are the cute result of building permits not being required for small cottages of less than 15sq m. Jonas Wagell's Mini House began life as a design thesis in 2007 and is now available for purchase. The prefab flat-pack, based around a timber frame, has simplified aesthetics (think shed rather than mini-mansion) and extensive decking, which isn't part of the building-permit restriction. An optional solar-power kit adds sustainable energy to the equation, or you can go in the opposite direction and select the sauna module. They can also be fitted with cooking or bathing facilities or just a desk.

Sustain (Canada)

miniHOME (432sq ft)

Sustain's miniHOME 12x36 California Edition is greener than the cabins of countrymen Form & Forest, with FSC-certified wood, soy-based insulation and non-toxic finishes. "Electrical loads have been minimised," says Sustain's Andy Thomson, "so a small, affordable wind/solar package can take the unit off the grid." The 12x36 California Edition comes with a 4kW inverter to plug directly into a renewable power system. Rainwater is collected from a central downspout and can be filtered for freshwater supply or landscaping and greywater treatment is offered by a third party. With a 0.5gpm showerhead, one-pint toilet and tankless, heat-on-demand hot water, the miniHOME uses less water in the first place. The Extreme Climate edition is designed to use snowdrifts as insulation.

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