words David Taylor
Prefab apartment buildings are a bit like London buses: you don’t see any for a couple of decades and then three come along at once.
First there was Murray Grove in London, designed by architect Cartwright Pickard for housing association the Peabody Trust, manufactured by Portakabin’s sister company Yorkon and built in just seven months in 1999, followed by Sixth Avenue – a 24-unit, steel-framed block in York.
And here’s the latest project to fall off the back of a lorry: Raines Dairy. Again for Peabody, the six-storey block in North London has been designed by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, with modules once more built by Yorkon.
Raines Dairy is the biggest of the new-generation prefabs, containing 61 units and costing £11 million. It also uses the largest modules to date: the steel-frame boxes are 3.8m wide, meaning just two are required per two-bed apartment.
The driving force behind it is Peabody’s development director Dickon Robinson, who is single-handedly trying to reintroduce the disgraced construction technique to the UK. Robinson believes modular construction could lead to better, faster housing: since they are made in factory conditions, the modules should theoretically be as high-quality as modern cars.
In practice, however, the technique is still feeling its way. Building flats in Yorkshire and ferrying them to a cramped site in London creates a completely different set of headaches to traditional construction. “Modular is absolutely in its infancy,” says Simon Allford of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, who adds that the next stage is to develop larger units to minimise transportation, and to increase the amount of construction done off-site from the 50 per cent achieved at Raynes Dairy to 80 per cent. AHMM is learning all it can from this scheme to apply to others, including MoMo – a prototype modular housing idea it is working on with a shipping container manufacturer.
So, there are teething troubles. But is modular the future? “It isn’t the future,” says Allford. “But it is a future.”