When I told my grandparents that I was going to view a prefab house, they broke into an impromptu chorus of Malvina Reynolds' 1950s singalong "Little Boxes". "There's a green one and a pink one and blue one and a yellow one/And they're all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same." It's not until I'm crossing the churned earth that will form the driveway of this new home in suburban Surrey that I realise exactly how much can change in a couple of generations.
There is nothing slightly ticky-tacky about this precision-engineered, custom-designed, German-manufactured house. The Bauhaus-inspired, timber post and beam structure spreads the load wide and true, like welcoming arms, opening up an operatic expanse of energy-efficient, argon-filled glass. Inside it, you feel the lawn could roll right up to the fireplace, and that your thoughts can drift up through the skylights into the clouds.
It's made by Huf Haus, a company founded 90 years ago - enough time to build up unrivalled expertise. And though it performs essentially the same function as the traditional prefab - a rapidly installed home supplied by a single company - there is a difference: this one is prefabricated in kit form. Ignoring the jokes (a sense of humour was always required for those with prefab houses) about needing at least an acre of land to spread out the instructions, it makes good sense - the builders are supplied by Huf, and assembly takes a matter of weeks.
In the basement I glimpse a painter, yet the only detectable odours are of soil and Scandinavian spruce. "There are no toxins in a Huf Haus," explains Huf's saleswoman, Afra Bindewald. "We use the same paint on the walls that is used on children's toys. And planning permission is usually easy. Planners love these. They like truly modern houses - we've built by listed buildings. It's the pastiche places they hate."
To get a sense of the quality of finish, we head up the road to the all-white home of Peter Huf, head of the company's UK operations. With Huf's daughter playing on the floor, I see that everything about this place is simple, unfussily luxurious almost contemporarily elemental. As Bindewald lights the fire and I gaze heavenwards from the sofa, I figure there must be a catch. "How much do these cost?" I query. "They start at £250,000, but from there, the sky's the limit."
So, it's more expensive to build than the standard pile of bricks and mortar - although cheaper than your average modernist masterpiece. But there is a cheaper option, or at least there will be come winter, when Ikea launches its own easy-assembly BoKlok (which translates as "LiveSmart") homes. Details are as yet unfinalised, but it looks like these timber framed, one- or two-bedroom houses will come either as flatpack (you'd have to hire contractors for the assembly) or ready-built on mini Ikea estates. The units have been thoroughly tested in Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden, where 2,000 BoKloks occupy 45 sites. With house prices in the UK at all-time highs, and fewer people being able to step on to the property ladder, the decision to bring these crisp cabins to Britain is evidence of our enthusiasm for affordable, well-designed homes - Ikea tells me that the BoKlok will be available to households with incomes of £15,000 to £30,000 a year.
But while some are looking for a first-time buy, others dream of a second home in the country, and that's where Buckley Gray Yeoman comes in. These architects, based in Shoreditch, east London, have come up with The Retreat, a gracefully right-angled wooden unit, a modern, prefabricated mobile home with a private decked courtyard, all of which can be sited on a simple concrete slab or individual pads, without the need for expensive foundations. It even conforms to the legal definition of a caravan.
"So many people desire to have somewhere they can escape to, by the coast or in the country, but affordability and availability were not there for most people," says Richard Buckley. "These arrive on the back of a lorry, take a day to set up and there it is: a home with lighting, heating, kitchen, bathroom." They start at £37,500, for two bedrooms, and run up to £60,000 for a Retreat with three double bedrooms and two bathrooms.
As for where to install it, Buckley says, "People are developing areas just for Retreats, in Norfolk, Devon Ireland and even Spain. The tradition caravan park is not somewhere I think the Retreat would sit terribly comfortably."
The rebirth of the prefab isn't just happening in the UK. The New Zealand outfit Bachkit sells its modernist-inspired modular units for between £28,000 and £100,000. The chilled-out designers talk of "an indescribable quality of simplicity with a flow from indoors to outdoors".
Of the US companies proffering prefabs, Rocio Romero makes two types, one of which is the Fish Camp kit house, "designed so the nature lover can enjoy the serenity of being outdoors". For those who want to stay a little closer to home, Metroshed offers chic, cedar wood units for the bottom of the garden, and at only $86 (£48) a square metre. Granddad is going to love them.
Contacts: Huf Haus, www.huf-haus.de/en; Buckley Gray Yeoman, www.buckleygray yeoman.com; Bachkit, www.bachkit.com; Rocio Romero, www.rocioromero.com
LIVING ON THE CUTTING-EDGE
Extend the ethos of your AAA-rated fridge and you'll be at home in Gale & Snowden's "environmental modular housing". The Ecokit is made of breathable timber and designed for the lowest possible environmental impact, and developed for self-build or complete prefabrication. Those living in the terraced rows of 35 prototypes in South Molton in north Devon claim to have used their central heating only four times in the past year. "They stay warm through bodyheat and cooking," says architect David Gale, " and hot water can be managed through solar panels, where affordable." Not officially on the market yet, the Ecokit team is quietly seeking " guinea pig" clients. HB
These Lego-like units are designed by Dutchman Mart de Jong for De Vijf, and are equipped to function as compact studio residences, complete with kitchen, shower and toilet. Made of the same high-grade lightweight composites used in shipbuilding, the stackable Spaceboxes have already been installed on one university campus. When the need for them is gone, they can be taken back down with minimum fuss and used elsewhere. HB
Cost-effective and spacesaving, capsule living was pioneered in Tokyo in the 1970s by architects such as Kisho Kurokawa. Now its coming to London, a city whose average inhabitant, making £28,000 a year, is being pushed ever further from the centre of the action. The Microflat, costing around £100,000, was designed by architects Stuart Piercy and Richard Conner when they realised that nobody in their office of 18 staff could afford to live near it. HB
Parasitic architecture is the new solution where space is at a premium. Making use of the nooks and crannies of a city, it involves lifting or attaching prefabricated units on to existing buildings. MAE architects has developed the Lift Up House, a box that is light enough to be installed on top of existing buildings. Many architects believe that much of London's housing problem could be solved via the creative use of existing city space rather than building further and further out. Future Laboratories
It may bring to mind images of the Batcave, but underground dwelling isn't only for those who wear their pants on the outside. Building downward can be costly but it maximises space in city centres and, as architect Alex Michaelis learnt when he built his own family home in Notting Hill, west London, the process helps you to work within planning restrictions and even fit in a superhero-style slide for the kids. At his site, regulations dictated that no building should be visible above a six-foot wall to the street. Being six-foot-plus himself, something had to give. HB
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