By Anthea Gerrie

Fabulous prefabs

Today’s high-design prefabricated homes are light years away from the prefabs of old.

Prefabs were once considered anything but fabulous, dismissed as cheap, utilitarian, copycat homes thrown up fast to serve a desperate need for postwar housing. But design and technology experts have transformed today’s prefabricated homes into objects of desire, celebrated on television and in architecture magazines.

Hand-picked houses

Pioneering manufacturers have led the way in high-quality bespoke modular housing whose key elements – everything from walls to roofs, joists, doors, window frames, glazing panels, plumbing and wiring, even complete kitchens and bathrooms – are made in state-of-the-art factories before being shipped to the site for assembly.

The design process is as key as the manufacturing protocols for German industry leaders Huf Haus, Baufritz and WeberHaus as well as UK rivals such as Facit Homes, who put together their building modules on-site. The result is a totally customised home delivered in a fraction of the time it would take to build from scratch.

“The typical construction time is one week in the factory and assembly time to complete a watertight shell in two to three days,” says Baufritz MD Oliver Rehm. Like many German manufacturers, the company welcomes prospective buyers to visit their headquarters to view a wide range of possibilities and meet the architects, engineers and designers who create customised homes at a cost upwards of £2,000 a square metre. This may not be cheaper than traditional construction methods, but Rehm points out that prefabricated homes require less material due to minimal waste in the construction stage and create less disruption on-site.

Design-led dream homes

But how to choose among these top-end firms? Baufritz prides itself on ‘healthy’ homes built from timber that is not chemically treated, and is showcased on the exterior walls with ribbing or other patterning. Huf Haus is known for its breathtaking use of large expanses of glass, running floor to ceiling and often across the entire front façade of a house. It also favours gabled roofs with generous overhangs, a modernist touch offering welcome shade in our increasingly warm summers.

WeberHaus, which prides itself on a construction system that assures optimum air quality, has teamed up with Apple to integrate the tech giant’s smart home solution HomeKit. It often creates drama through contrasting dark balconies and window frames against white-rendered walls.

Facit Homes differs from the German manufacturers in its designs, which often resemble a series of interconnected boxes and use contrasting colours and a mixture of materials. The company also offers an assisted self-finish option for those who want to get hands-on, Grand Designs style, in the final stages of construction.

Room for improvement?

Is there a downside to the prefabricated home? A London architect with extensive experience in modular building does question how well the timber predominantly used in today’s prefabs fits into the British landscape. “It’s a difficult material to work with, and brick should not be undervalued as an outer skin,” says Alex Lifschutz, founder-director of award-winning practice Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands.

But the bricklaying skills that allowed fine Georgian homes such as the Grade-I-listed townhouses of London’s Bedford Square to shine can be hard to find nowadays, says Lifschutz. “It’s vital that the construction industry of today skills up to meet the demand for new homes,” he says.

Home-grown talent

With the country once again in need of extra housing, it’s no surprise that UK manufacturers are taking a fresh look at prefabs. British modular homes business Ilke Homes has opened a new factory in North Yorkshire capable of producing 2,000 homes a year for as little as £65,000 plus the cost of land, assembly and connection to services.

Insurance company Legal & General has also entered the field, also in Yorkshire, with a factory that intends to build 3,500 prefabricated homes a year; the first places have already been completed. The advent of 3D-printed houses constructed or assembled by robots, meanwhile, could precipitate a sea change in the rate at which affordable housing can be brought on-stream, with a Nantes-based consortium leading the way in Europe.

Try before you buy

For those in the £600,000-plus market tempted to go modular – almost certainly the new build model of the future – the best way forward is to see what a 21st-century prefab looks like close up. Some German manufacturers have show houses in the UK or will arrange access to homes they have built here for previous customers, while Facit uses hyper-real 3D visualisation software to help bring prospective designs to life for potential buyers. All in the field will gladly arrange for prospective buyers to meet the architects and designers who are positively itching to help them bring their fabulous prefabricated dream home to life.