The built environment has a great impact on the world’s population. Given the almost limitless opportunities, innovation is inevitable, and Ireland is at the forefront.
On 25 September 2018, Amazon announced its investment in Plant Prefab, a California based company making modular, prefabricated homes. This has been one of the latest developments in smart home building, perhaps demonstrating that factory-built homes might be the answer to affordability, labour shortages, and construction issues.
Fast and simple
Prefabricated homes, or prefabs, are manufactured off-site in factories in standard-sized sections that are capable of being shipped to almost anywhere in the world. Prefabricated means that built-in components are constructed in transportable sections. All plumbing, electrical lines and fittings are installed across the various sections in-factory and then sealed together on-site when the house is assembled. Done correctly, prefab homes can be next to impossible to distinguish from traditionally built ones. Once assembled, the house has a ‘settling-in’ period on its new, permanent foundation, and it is normally recommended to not occupy the dwelling during this time. Kitchens and bathrooms are usually built-in in these prefab homes and most can be erected in 36 hours instead of the traditional 40 plus weeks.
There is currently no EU housing standard for this kind of home construction and regulation is normally at the national government level. However, there are many directives for housing construction and design, and although not directly aimed at the EU modular home sector, each prefab house is still legally expected to be integrated into local building regulations by final construction. To this end, while prefab homes can be ordered online as easily as a book on Amazon, it should be done hand-in-hand with reputable contractors. Additionally, prefab homes are not permitted in some areas for whatever reason, so applicable zoning laws must be checked and considered before investing in such a project.
In 2011 it was announced that Britain’s largest remaining pre-modern prefab estate in Lewisham, South-East London, consisting of 187 prefab houses, was to be redeveloped. Historically, prefab has been associated with a specific type of prefabricated house built en masse and in a rush after the Second World War as a temporary replacement for homes that were destroyed by air raids. As such, the United Kingdom specifically did not view prefabs with open arms, but this view is rapidly changing, fueled by the rising costs of traditional construction, and lengthy labour and building delays. New technologies are fast becoming industry best practice and will provide longer-term and sustainable housing options for the future. Europe is currently one of the biggest consumers and manufacturers of prefab homes, with many market leaders based in Ireland.
Fabricating the future
In an effort to address Europe’s current housing shortage, architects are experimenting with prefabrication as a means to deliver mass-produced, well-designed, modern homes. Due to the design simplifications and cost savings of going the prefab route, many in the manufactured housing sector believe that the only way for prefab home construction is up.
The Trade and Technology Board of the Irish Government, Enterprise Ireland, says that Ireland’s innovation and capability in off-site construction has become widely heralded—the sector they have dubbed Modern Methods of Construction (MMC). Construction continues to be one of the key driving forces of the economy, fueled especially by the country’s current and highly publicised housing shortage. The associated rising costs of construction, labour, and materials have meant that obtaining a new home has become increasingly difficult for many, especially young families. Prefabs are considerably cheaper than brick-and-mortar constructed homes and can be completely customised, making them modern, comfortable, and all-around appealing.
A 40m² two-bed model, for example, costs around €75,000, including a fitted bathroom and kitchen with appliances. Land, of course, is not included, but this is normally the least expensive part of building anything. In most instances, prefabs qualify for mortgage assistance, making them even more viable for young families wanting to break into the property market and become homeowners. They also carry a warranty, meaning that any repairs required over a number of years are covered, saving owners yet more money and effort. There has also been a global push towards prefab for commercial use, and countries like America, Japan, Denmark, Norway and Canada are making pod or capsule hotels famous.
Apart from cost, perhaps the greatest appeal of prefabrication is the speed with which one can obtain a ready-to-occupy home. Standard versions can be produced in-factory within three months and erected in 3 days. Depending on your chosen supplier, prefabs are green, energy efficient, solar panelled, eco-friendly, safe, quality, modern homes. Some are even smart, with voice-activated functionality, an area Amazon’s Alexa is currently dominating. As a world leading company, Amazon has consistently been ahead in anticipating the next trends to enthral society, so their investment in the start-up, Plant Prefab, is noteworthy: it shows that smart homes, the expanding ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT), and Wi-Fi enabled physical devices may be the next event horizon for integrating even more advanced technology into home life.
Prefabricated homes save on waste, labour, time, and the environmental damage that comes with traditional building, and purchasing one is as easy as buying from a catalogue. For Ireland, especially, they are a fast and economic answer to the housing shortage. Prefab used to be considered cheap and unattractive—think shipping container-style trailer park homes. They were not desirable, perceived rather as the poor man’s option, and their link to post-World War Two horrors further tarnished their reputation. Thanks to modern advancement and need, they have been quickly brought into the current age with all the modern trimmings included: aesthetically pleasing, fashionable, warm, and fully-fitted. One is challenged to find anything wrong with them.
With Ireland’s population and economic growth, off-site construction could certainly be the way the forward. As the market for prefab expands, it will also provide further employment for the country’s growing workforce, not taking away from traditional construction; manufacturers of prefabs employ professionals across the board—from architects to the assembly line. Fast and affordable, today’s modern prefabs will empower many who were previously excluded from the property market to finally become homeowners.