Could prefabrication solve our housing affordability crisis?
Almost three million homes in Britain were lost or damaged in World War II. One of the approaches to rebuilding in a hurry was to use prefabricated technology, converting wartime production facilities to housing. They were only supposed to last ten years, but many are still occupied today. That’s one of the benefits of prefab; building a house in a factory can give you better quality control. Or as the prefab salesmen say: “you wouldn’t build your car in the driveway, so why would you build your house in a field?” However in the end, most of the British prefab companies went out of business; it turned out to be cheaper to build out of traditional brick.
Now Britain is going through another housing crisis, and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers has a suggestion: prefabricated housing. Tim Fox, author of their report, notes that current construction levels are half of the estimated 250,000 homes that need to be built every year. He tells the Telegraph:
The UK is in the middle of an acute housing crisis. The Government needs to demonstrate real ambition, leadership and innovation, not make small piecemeal changes, if it is going to solve the UK’s housing crisis. Overhauling the way the UK constructs homes could be the quickest and most effective way of doing this.
The report includes the usual list of benefits of prefabrication:
© Institution of Mechanical Engineers
These are all true, and are as true in North America as they are in Britain. They have been true for years. The trouble is, the housing crisis in Britain and New York, San Francisco and Vancouver have nothing to do with construction technology. The real problem is shown in the graph that is part of the report:
Institution of Mechanical Engineers/Screen capture
It used to be taken for granted that government would build and own housing both to stimulate the market and to provide housing for the poor and the working class who could not afford market rents. But almost everywhere, government has got out of the business of building and where they still own the housing, they have let it run down. The fact is, most of the people who need housing can’t afford it, prefab or conventional.
Then there is the question of where they are going to go. If one is going to build a lot more single family housing you have to start eating up greenbelts, open green space and farmland, building more roads, more servicing and more sprawl. That's why the answer is to go up, not out.
Prefabrication is a wonderful thing, giving better quality in a shorter time. But it is a fantasy to think that it can solve the UK’s housing crisis or anyone else’s. It’s a planning and political issue, not a construction problem.