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3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Improving the design of houses has been the constant pursuit of architects, and the results are all around us - from prefabricated tower blocks to eco-homes. Hugh Pearman reports

The future was always going to be pods, wasn't it? Not only in science-fiction visions, but also in officially sanctioned exhibitions and the artists' impressions beloved of newspapers and magazines. There seemed to be little doubt in the years following the Second World War that, in the future, houses would not look much like traditional houses. They would embrace the technology of the car, the aeroplane, the yacht, the spaceship.

We would, in short, all soon be living in pods. Possibly made of plastic, aluminium or titanium - but certainly not out of lumps of baked clay.

That future never happened. Much of the mass housing being built today - the big estates of new homes on the edges of towns and cities, or sometimes on redundant sites such as closed hospitals, gasworks and factories - would be familiar to a waistcoated, bowler-hatted Victorian builder. He would understand the techniques being used, would doubtless marvel at some of the equipment, but would not feel he had strayed on to an alien planet. This is partly because today's housebuilding industry is deeply conservative and suspicious of change (though a shift in attitude is in the air), but also because, by late Victorian times, the British housebuilding industry was incredibly advanced.

The Victorians had electricity, gas, and the telephone, even if they did not choose to incorporate these technologies into their cheaper terraced homes, particularly those for workers in the industrial north. Coal fires, oil lamps and outside toilets (sometimes shared between several houses) remained the norm for many right into the 20th century. But for the emergent and more affluent middle classes, especially in the south, a new kind of home was already widespread by the close of the 19th century: a home with good plumbing, inside toilets and dedicated bathrooms, bright lights (usually gas), very efficient fireplaces and kitchen ranges for cooking and heating water.

As important as the standard of living represented by such homes was the astonishing speed and efficiency of the construction industry that provided them. The Georgians had been good at prefabrication (the use of factory-made components as opposed to the making of everything from raw materials on site), but the Victorians were past masters at it. When it suited them, they could make entire buildings - Jwarehouses, railway stations, greenhouses, military field hospitals and missionary churches - out of iron and steel components and glass. The Crystal Palace, venue for the Great Exhibition of 1851 - the first of the modern world fairs - showed just what Victorian designers and engineers could do in double-quick time.

For housing, they used smaller components made of more traditional materials - typically brick, stone and timber, plus various metal embellishments - that were none the less mass-produced. As a result, the speed at which Britain was urbanised during the mid to late 19th century was astonishing. You could buy mail-order timber kit homes in America as early as 1908: small wonder, considering that the first recorded transportable prefabricated home was a timber-frame English house taken to pieces and shipped to Massachusetts for re-erection as early as 1624. The aftermath of the First World War saw some experiments in more advanced prefabricated homes. Essentially, these were houses made out of bigger factory-made pieces, with concrete and metal panels starting to play a part, but conventional "wet" construction methods - bricklaying, plastering, pouring of concrete - quickly reasserted themselves, despite the decimation of the working population by war and the influenza epidemic that followed it.

The new wave of modernism in architecture in the 1920s and 1930s favoured the use of concrete for houses, not least because it could be poured into exciting new shapes, allowing architects to do things they never could with brick; but despite these experiments it was not until after the Second World War that a serious effort was made to mass-produce a different kind of home. Production-line "prefabs", made by a number of companies using various materials and methods, symbolised the government's determined effort to provide the famous "homes for heroes" (people returning from military service to a blitzed Britain), and to house the baby boom that followed the end of the war. The aim was to beat swords into ploughshares by converting weapons and aircraft factories into housebuilding ventures.

However, the prefabs were a political and popular rather than an economic success. They could be produced and installed rapidly, but they were expensive. The paradox of prefabrication - it ought to be cheaper, but it usually isn't - remains a problem in Britain to this day.

The prefabs, usually single-storey, looked more like sheds or garages than traditional houses. But many of them were well designed and very well equipped (often containing refrigerators and washing machines, which for many were to remain unaffordable luxuries right into the 1960s). Moreover, they were usually placed on generous plots of land. The grow-your-own food instinct had taken root during the war, and much state-funded housing in the 1940s and 1950s, before the era of tower blocks, was provided with large gardens with this in mind. Intended as a temporary measure, the prefabs became much-loved. Some have lasted to the present day; some are now "listed buildings", officially protected as being of architectural andor historical importance. One is to be found in the Avoncroft Museum of Buildings near Bromsgrove, along with reassembled medieval farmhouses and a slightly surreal collection of telephone boxes.

More advanced prefabs had been proposed by the American inventor and architect of genius, Richard Buckminster Fuller, as early as 1927. Where the British prefabs were just boxes, Fuller imagined, and built prototypes of cylindrical mast-suspended houses, using components from the aircraft industry. He pursued his goal of the "Dymaxion" house (his trademark, a combination of DYnamic, MAXimum, and tensION) right through to the 1940s, when it oh-so-nearly went into production, made by the Beech Aircraft company. It was to be sold for the price of a Cadillac, all its parts to be transported in a large metal tube. Two prototypes were built: one has been restored and is now to be seen in the Henry Ford Museum at Dearborn, Michigan. But despite setting up a joint-venture company to make the homes, Fuller was too much of a perfectionist for his colleagues, refusing to compromise on anything. Production never started. However, another Fuller idea, the complete prefabricated bathroom "pod", is now a commonplace throughout the construction industry.

Concrete, first used on a large scale by the Romans (and, some say, the ancient Egyptians) came into its own in the post-war years as a new kind of "social housing" emerged. A split developed between the public and private sectors, with the private speculative housebuilders favouring traditional brick-and -tile homes, and the public sector favouring large, allegedly advanced, concrete, or at any rate concrete-framed, apartment buildings. At first these were bespoke designs, but the drive to build more and more to keep up with the baby-boom generation led to the prefabricated towers and slab block phenomenon of the 1960s, many of them made with huge, heavy panels of concrete stacked up like houses of cards.

The better tower blocks from this period have survived and many of them have become popular again, but the worst examples were badly made, built and managed. A weakness of some concrete-panel systems, as was discovered at the Ronan Point block in London in 1970, was that a relatively small domestic gas explosion could blow out a panel, so precipitating a progressive collapse. Many were subsequently demolished. It was decades before high-rise living, using different techniques, became acceptable again.

But the visions of "homes of the future" had continued to flow. In the Ideal Home exhibition of 1956, avant-garde British architects Alison and Peter Smithson, then associated with the Pop Art movement, envisaged an all-plastic house with all kinds of clever gizmos. They even designed the clothes its future inhabitants would wear - nylon pixie-dresses for the women, a strange kind of combined legging-cum-slipper for the men. It's easy to laugh at the quaintness of such 1950s science-fiction-influenced designs, but Alison Smithson (and it was she who did most of the design work) came up with two ideas that proved to be prescient: remote controls for television and lighting; and self-cleaning bathrooms, something you find now in some chains of budget hotels.

The Smithsons' artist friend Richard Hamilton, who staged the famous "This is Tomorrow" exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, urged them to be "popular, transient, expendable, low cost, mass produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, big business".

He was a good 10 years ahead of his time, because all that prefigured the concerns of the 1960s. Come to that, if you remove the words "expendable" and "transient", you get pretty much the attitude of today's hip metropolitan housing developers, such as Manchester's Urban Splash, who are once again using prefabrication as a way to achieve speed and quality.

Their Moho development in Manchester's Castlefield area, where complete flats were factory-made and clipped together into a block on site - is part of what is almost a living exhibition of advanced commercial apartment buildings - some new, some converted from old factories.

On the social housing side, some, notably the Peabody Trust, have also experimented fruitfully with prefabrication. Peabody has come close to the holy grail of zero-energy housing with its "BedZed" development at Beddington, in Surrey, by eco-architect Bill Dunster. This is one of the world's first "carbon neutral" communities, with its on-site energy generation and sewage works, its use of local materials and its various energy-saving measures, including the characteristic colourful wind-towers on top. It is a pioneering hamlet of 100 homes and businesses that seems to work and is certainly pleasant to live in. But, so far, it has not been replicated elsewhere in the UK.

The most attention-grabbing ideas for future housing are always the high-tech one-off houses. The Ideal Home show returns to the theme from time to time - in 1998 it was the turn of architect Nigel Coates with his Oyster House. Intended as a kit home, this looked a bit like a hamburger on stilts, but it had one socially important feature - separate stairs to separate areas of the house for parents and children. Although kit homes are popular in the US, there is some resistance to them in more tightly regulated Europe. A mail-order design in the mid-1990s by French designer Philippe Starck for the 3 Suisses company appeared tongue-in-cheek: the "kit" consisted of nothing but a small box with plans and instructions, a symbolic hammer and a French flag to unfurl when the building was complete.

The "kit" cost about pound;450 and you had to find all the materials - and, of course, the land - yourself. But it did work: Starck built one for himself as a weekend retreat.

More commercially successful, however, is the German Huf Haus timber-home system, originated by architect Peter Huf. Modern Alpine in appearance, this has proved sufficiently adaptable to be built all over Europe. The only traditional part of the construction is the cellar. Once that is in place, a Huf Haus typically takes about 10 days to build.

In Britain, timber kit-bungalows were common in the inter-war years. Today, their place has been taken by the "mobile homes", or static caravans, found in parks all round the country. These are the spiritual descendants of the post-war prefabs, but generally much narrower. The trouble is that when you take static-caravan technology and turn it into something more like a real home, the thing stops being cheap.

One such experiment, designer Tim Pyne's M-house, is offered for Pounds 135,000, complete and delivered, but not including the price of the land.

Compare that with Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's mission to provide affordable homes for pound;60,000, and it seems we have a long way to go.

If you've got lots of money, you can build a high-tech, zero-energy, super-comfortable house of the future for yourself, right now. The rest of us will have to wait a bit I and improve our loft insulation in the meantime.


Architects David Marks and Julia Barfield like to think big. As the designers of the London Eye observation wheel, they use technology in new ways. Skyhouse (pictured above and left) is a project for a new breed of super-tall, low-energy, socially-mixed residential tower which is essentially a vertical village, with all the shops, schools and childcare - and open space - that a good village needs. The cleverness of Skyhouse is that it is not one conventional tower, but three slender oval ones of different heights, facing outwards, supported by a central spinal column that also contains lifts and power-generating wind turbines (see insert picture). Marks Barfield have designed it to include both housing for key-workers such as teachers and nurses, and upmarket apartments for the wealthy. Rising to 50 storeys and containing up to 800 homes, it would cost pound;164 million to build and, they have calculated, would still be highly profitable even with more than one-third of its space devoted to affordable key worker apartments. Another way to save the countryside: reinvent high-rise city living.

Future Systems house, Wales

Built as a holiday retreat, this little house, overlooking a bay in Pembroke, was designed for minimum impact on the landscape. Future Systems, famous for the blue and silver sequinned boob-tube Selfridges store in Birmingham, had produced a number of speculative designs over the years for high-technology homes in rural areas, many inspired by spaceships and aeroplanes. Their circular "doughnut house" design, intended to be part-buried in the earth, entered the realms of the practical. From that came this real commission. Conceived as an eye overlooking the sea, it is all but invisible from the coastal path that runs behind it. The all-glass oval facade provides all the necessary daylight. Inside, it is one large space, with kitchen and bathroom made as colourful freestanding prefabricated "pods". Could this be a way to build lots more homes in the countryside without destroying it?

Michaelis house, London

Architect Alex Michaelis has built a home for himself and his family on a pocket of wasteland in Ladbroke Grove. Local planners would allow nothing to be built higher than a six-foot wall running along the front, so Michaelis dug a pit and sunk a big two-storey, five-bedroom house into the ground.

Its roof is a wildflower meadow. Michaelis is a committed eco-architect who uses three key energy-saving measures: photovoltaic panels to generate electricity, solar panels to directly heat water, and heat pumps operating on ground water from his own borehole to provide temperature control within the house. It is also highly insulated. None of this, however, detracts from the enjoyment of the house, where daylight floods in from above and the sides (there is a garden terrace out the back), where the living areas are on the top floor and the bedrooms (and a small swimming pool) downstairs. Michaelis has even built a slide into his staircase for his children. With his bike, electric car and semi-subterranean house, Michaelis proves that you can save the planet and still live in considerable style.

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