Here's one we built yesterday

Who needs the hassle of a mega project when you can knock up a home in just two days? Phil Boucher finds out why speed building holds the answer to the housing crisis

Sunday 30 October 2011 23:51 GMT

If public-opinion surveys are to be believed, then builders generally share the same ethics as car mechanics, estate agents and politicians when it comes to bending the boundaries of truth. So it's only natural that if a contractor claims a house can be erected within two days, most people immediately take it with not so much a pinch of salt, but a six-yard skip overflowing with the stuff.

Yet this is one occasion where builders should actually be ranked alongside such professions as doctors and teachers in any listing of trustworthiness. Thanks to a range of modern technologies it is now possible to create homes in a fraction of the time of traditional methods. Better still, these methods reduce much of the noise, dirt and disruption of traditional builds and are far better for the environment.

"On one of our projects the neighbours living opposite went out to work on the morning of day one and by the time they'd come back, the whole of the ground floor and the front of the building had been erected. They jokingly asked us, 'Are we going a bit mad?'" says Chris Drury from WeberHaus German Engineered Homes.

Speed building owes its development to a series of ingenious prefabrication systems that enable builders to create a wooden superstructure of a house within as little as 48 hours. Once this watertight shell is in place, the rest of the construction work can be carried out in tandem, rapidly speeding up the entire process. The result is a fully completed house in as little as five months – less than half the time of a traditional build.

"Basically, it is like making a cardboard model," explains Russell Curtis, from RCKa architects.

"A series of panels are fabricated in a factory to your requirement, then a lorry turns up with the panels on its back and you bolt them together so that within two to four days you have got a building shell you can work with. Effectively you are left with a watertight box that enables you to have tradesmen working externally and internally at the same time to finish off the house."

This form of parallel building is impossible to employ with traditional "floor-up" construction methods and is something that architect Hugh Strange pushed to the limit on his own family home in Deptford, south-east London.

As the site was an old pub yard and largely concealed from the street by a brick wall, Hugh designed a single-storey house that could be fitted into the awkward brownfield space within 48 hours.

While his panels were being made in a Swiss factory, he also took this principle of prefabrication one step further and commissioned a series of British craftsmen to create the kitchen, bookshelves, cupboards and internal doors off site too. That way the components were ready to be transported and rapidly, yet very precisely, fitted at the most convenient time. The entire house was completed in 20 weeks and Strange now benefits from a home made in the precise, calm working environment of a Swiss factory, and the equally sedate surroundings of a British workshop.

"Prefabs got a name for poor quality but, actually, these days it is the opposite: it is a way of ensuring better quality in a lot of ways," Strange says. "In a controlled environment, things can be made a lot more carefully, with a better finish and more resilience. On a messy site that's open to the elements, it is that much harder to control all those things."

In north London, Bliss Spaces has used a similar system to develop a pair of multimillion-pound houses in six days – and with just six men on the job. This time, the technology involved cross-laminated timber panels manufactured from Austrian spruce but, as with Strange's Deptford home, the technology provided an intelligent combination of construction speed, quality of fit and design flexibility.

"The objective for us was to adopt all that methodology but at the end of the day have a great space to live in. There is no point simply using technology for technology's sake," explains Daniel Broch, founder of the company.

Emboldened by this success, Bliss Spaces is now refining the system in a luxury-house project in Ascot where the traditional, time-consuming aspects of the process are being pared back as far as possible. Through this, Broch believes it will be possible for them to build a large, high-spec house from start to finish in around five months.

"We initially used this as a component part of a very conventional build because it was the first time we had adopted the system. So the time of the entire project was still heavily governed by the conventionality of a traditional build," he adds.

"In the future, we believe it will be possible to integrate far more of the elements such as electrics and plumbing into the prefab element, so you can speed up the process yet further in a design that marries great aesthetics with great functionality."

Should this be the case, then it may represent the way forward for domestic home building. Based on current demand, the Institute for Public Policy Research believes the UK needs 750,000 new houses within the next 15 years and, unfortunately, that level of demand is likely to lead to many developers' cutting corners and building homes on the cheap.

Speed building with timber avoids this: it is quick, sturdy, comparably priced and proven to work, with around 30,000 WeberHaus homes having been built in Germany alone.

The methods can also be applied to the construction of high-density housing such as tower blocks: in January 2008, architects Waugh Thistleton began work on a nine-storey tower in Murray Grove, Hackney, north London using cross-laminated timber panels. The superstructure took four men just 27 days to complete – an astonishing rate of a floor every three days. Within a year, its 29 apartments and ground-floor community office were completed. In comparison, a traditional build would take at least eight months longer.

"Basically, it is jumbo plywood – secondary-grade, 5in-thick timber that would generally be made into paper – and you cross-laminate that with PVA glue. So the material is completely inert – you could eat it – but it is still a hefty, resolute building," says architect Andrew Waugh says.

Then there are the environmental considerations: concrete is made from lime and coke that is dug from the ground and heated up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit for a number of days until it reaches the proper consistency. It's estimated that this process causes around 5 per cent of global CO2 emissions.

In contrast, Murray Grove's timber was drawn from sustainable and recyclable sources. So rather than emitting CO2 into the atmosphere, it actually absorbs CO2.

"We have a big stretch in natural resources at the moment as concrete and steel in particular are becoming more expensive," says Waugh "So people are looking for alternatives and the danger is that when you do that, people go for cheap, lightweight solutions. Then you don't get quality. You don't get decent homes. With this system, you do."

Bliss Spaces

Project: Luxury double-story family home

Where: Highgate, London

Initial build: Six men, six days

Total build: 20 weeks

Materials used: Cross-laminated timber panels manufactured from Austrian spruce



Project: Two-storey bespoke family home

Where: Henley-on-Thames

Initial build: Five days

Total build: Three months (with fully installed kitchen and wet rooms)

Materials used: Closed panel timber frames, which come complete with triple-glazed windows, doors, plumbing, an internal staircase, conduits for the electrical works and a fully tiled roof


Hugh Strange

Project: Single-story family home

Where: Deptford, London

Initial build: 48 hours

Total build: 20 weeks

Materials used: Solid timber panels fabricated in Switzerland


Waugh Thistleton

Project: Nine-storey residential tower with 29 apartments. It is the tallest modern timber structure in the world

Where: Hackney, London

Initial build: Four men in 27 days (or one floor every three days)

Total build: 12 months

Materials used: Cross-laminated timber panels


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