Put the fab into prefab

Stuart Duncan of Boutique Modern thinks modular housing needs an interior-design overhaul

It’s fair to say that when you think of prefabricated or modular buildings, you don’t associate them with cutting-edge design or stylish interiors. Prefab covers a wide range of building types, from caravans, mobile homes and chalets through to demountable cabins, hotel rooms and student accommodation. Hardly the kind of thing to get your interior creative juices flowing. Prefab in the UK is long overdue a makeover or at least some input from the interior design community.

The thing is, buildings manufactured off site are just not sexy. The focus is always on low-cost, volumetric production, and a big part of this is making sure that every module coming off the production line is the same as the one before it. Mass production and antiquated building methods do not make time for individuality and creativity. This works well when you are building identical student accommodation modules or hotel rooms. It would be fair to say that most prefab manufacturers don’t employ an interior designer but rely on existing staff to come up with schemes — and it shows.

The fundamental problem is that prefab/ modular construction is still a niche industry and only used for a narrow range of building types. It is growing but very slowly, not helped by the social stigma associated with prefab. Many older people remember the poor-quality prefab houses that was built after the Second World War. Most of these have now been demolished but people don’t forget how substandard they were.

Then you have the caravan/mobile home/ park home. If ever there was an industry stuck in a time warp, this is it. The same basic design has been used for the past 30 years and there has been little or no real innovation. Inadequate British standards on insulation and ventilation mean they cost a fortune to maintain and live in. Part of the problem may lie with the customer, who is usually retired and living in a community of other like-minded individuals. Take a look at any of the main park-home manufacturers and you will see lots of fake country cottage exteriors or mock-tudor effects with fake beams. Internally it’s not much better: dado rails and swirly carpets are still popular. To be fair, some manufacturers offer more contemporary interiors but you get the feeling that they are an afterthought.

To downsize to a park home can make a lot of financial sense. As we all know, there is a crucial shortage of housing in the UK. As the massive baby-boom generation enters its senior years, the demand for alternative accommodation solutions will increase. Over the next 25 years, it is expected that the number of people aged 65+ will rise from 10.1 million to 16.7 million. This designsavvy generation will demand a product that consumes very little energy, is comfortable and looks fantastic. The existing park-home product is not going to cut it.

We only have to look to the USA to see where prefab is heading. Architects and interior designers such as Marmol Radziner and Michelle Kauffman are creating off-the-shelf bespoke homes that are made to order in the factory, completed and delivered to site in less than 12 weeks. Modern methods of construction, building information management and the power of the internet are making this possible.

Here in the UK we are a bit behind, but change is inevitable. We set up Boutique Modern to change the perception of prefab by designing the Edge, a hybrid modular house that is energy efficient, comfortable and modernist in design. We are a small bespoke manufacturer that focuses on quality, not quantity. Our aim is to create sustainable buildings with a modernist style that will appeal to a new generation of home owners. Interior design is something that we discuss at the planning stage so we can work out any potential problems before we start building.

As prefab gains in popularity, hopefully we will see more collaboration between manufacturers and interior designers. The industry could get a massive boost if big names, like Conran or Hoppen, were to lead the way and get involved. www.boutiquemodern.co.uk

This article was first published in idfx Magazine.

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