A need for speed

A new TV series challenges builders to erect a home in 24 hours - and in the process raises serious issues about the industry, says Cheryl Markosky
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The Independent Online

H orror stories abound about the time some building projects can take, so it seems fantastical to think you could even consider building a house in 24 hours. But that is the concept behind Home Wasn't Built in a Day, a new lifestyle television series being aired on UK Style. The idea is that debonair, easy-going presenter Tris Payne follows a different team each week to see if they can build a certain kind of home by working around the clock. It may sound gimmicky, but it does raise serious questions about the house-building world.

Although we would never demand that builders erect an entire home this quickly, isn't it still worth asking why they can't do things just a bit faster? The teams, which usually meet their deadlines, show you can achieve a lot in a short period when pushed. The key seems to be teamwork and good site management - plus, certain styles of home go up faster than others.

Of the 15 episodes, my favourite featured a taciturn young farm worker, James Bullock, who could not afford the £80,000 to buy in Staffordshire, but was happy to try living in a metal box. "I've been living on my mate's settee and I haven't got my own space," he says, and you do have to feel sympathy for him not being able to afford to live near his place of work. Bullock's transformed shipping container, which is cheap and transportable if somewhat lacking in aesthetic appeal, seems to do the trick, although he admits it is "a bit warm in summer and cold in winter".

Other ideas from the series that could be incorporated into mainstream builder thinking include the use of non-traditional materials like polystyrene, steel, soil, straw, aluminium and glass to create anything from Bullock's box to a yurt and a Waltons-style log cabin. Kingsley Cabins in North Devon ran up the latter home from a pile of wood in the allotted time, giving pensioner Pat Haynes an alternative to her bungalow. The episode showed why housing is such an emotional issue. As the lonely pensioner from Pensilva said, it is not just about bricks and mortar, she wanted to move near her son and daughter-in-law as "people here are out all day. There never seems to be anybody there."

Flexibility is important. People want more choices of how they can live and where. One of the biggest eye openers was developer Terry Rogers gamely trying to put up a three-storey, four-bedroom luxury home in Somerset worth over half a million pounds, using the Tradis Quick Build House system. Resembling an Ikea flat pack - but on a grander scale - 110 pre-cut and marked panels are meant to slot in place and hey presto: you have an instant house. It was reassuring to discover that the floor panels did not quite fit together and the long-suffering site manager Nigel Murray had to carry figures in his head to make adjustments as the house came together.

But this Quick Build scheme was quite impressive, despite all the hiccups. Not unlike the Frankfurt-based Huf Haus, wall panels are pre-cut in a factory and then fixed together with a nail gun. Payne calls it "building for the brave-hearted, pushing the limits", but the mentality of those buying needs to change as well. In the UK, old is good and new is bad. The ancient that has taken many centuries to mellow supposedly shows class, while anything of more nouveau riche proportions is deemed to be lacking in taste. But if we are to attempt to house those desperately in need of somewhere to live, maybe such methods should receive more serious attention.

Alas, Rogers' team fell at the final hurdle. The neighbours complained about the noise at 11.30 at night, so the lads had to down their tools. But it looks like they would have met the 24-hour deadline if they could have continued. The finished house didn't look half bad either, with lime plaster-rendered walls, Roman tiles and a balcony running the length of the first floor, lending it a Mediterranean feel. This is not your typical prefab, a word associated with post-war temporary housing that was never about to win any design prizes.

The developer rightly says that speed is often linked with "a bad job", but just because a home can be created in a short chunk of time "it does not mean it is fragile and of bad quality". The real tragedy of the flat-pack house is more a reflection of the market than construction procedures. In the end, the pioneering house took a year to sell. So no matter how fast you can put up something that looks just that bit different but is of good quality, you are still subject to the vagaries of the market. Perhaps the producers could look into a sequel: Home Wasn't Sold in a Year. But it hasn't the same hopeful ring about it, now does it?