Here's a new idea: off-the-rack prefabs by top architects

Carl Turner Cube House
© Carl Turner Architects via Cube Haus

Cube Haus is "disrupting the existing housing market, delivering high-design value, modular homes at reasonable prices."

Writing in the Guardian, architecture critic Oliver Wainwright asks:

What if buying a house were more like buying a car? Could the process of choosing between a Ford, Volkswagen or Nissan ever translate into picking between an Adjaye, Rogers or Assemble? Beyond the dream of ever being able to buy a house, the prospect of commissioning an architect-designed home is an impossibly remote prospect for most of us.

He then introduces use to Philip Bueno de Mesquita, who made his fortune in sneakers, and Paul Tully, a former ad man who founded Cube Haus. They are are planning to “disrupt the housing market” and offer “high-design homes at reasonable prices” with a range of off-the-peg, modular designs by well-known architects.

It’s hard doing modular designs in the city where everything is so close, and they are making it even harder by focusing on odd sites. Tully even set up a real estate company, Land Converter, to find odd lots as small as 500 square feet or even rooftops that can be severed off and built on. But Wainwright continues:

“One-off house projects are so expensive to do,” says Bueno de Mesquita, speaking from experience. “But we can create economies of scale that make innovative architectural design accessible.”

On their website, Cube Haus writes:

Modular construction will cut down on both waste and build time and will mean that houses can be quickly and economically configured to fit any shape or size of land plot - back land sites, gap sites and rooftops. Components will be made off-site in factories located in the UK. The frames of the buildings will be made from cross-laminated timber and will be clad in sustainable materials.

They say that “lower margins and use of off-site production mean the end product will be 10%-15% cheaper than an equivalent house in any given area.”

I really do wish them well and hope they succeed, particularly since the reason I am a TreeHugger writer is that I tried to do the same thing in Ontario, Canada and failed because after hiring the top architects and going with high quality materials and top architect-y detailing we couldn’t get the price anywhere near a conventional builder. But then I was an architect and real estate developer so had preconceived notions which these guys don’t have. They are, as Wainwright notes, “Speaking with the optimism that only people coming from outside the world of property development can have.”

On tight city lots we had all kinds of additional problems, and Cube Haus is specializing in oddball lots. They are also building out of cross-laminated timber (CLT) which is more expensive than conventional framing and you end up with a thicker wall, which isn’t great on tiny sites.

On the other hand, the designs are lovely. They are finding land and doing the approvals, which is critical- those are two of the toughest parts of the job. I really like Skene Catling de la Peña’s approach of building a standard core, another thing I tried as an architect in the 80s; she tells Wainwright:

“The idea that you can have a repeatable design that works for all these tiny plots is quite a tricky proposition,” says Charlotte Skene Catling. “Our solution was to pull all of the complicated bits of the house into a central core, and then have the skin adapt to fit the awkward geometries of the given site. It feels more like product design than architecture.”

Again, I do want them to succeed; so many architects, engineers and developers have tried this and failed over the years. A few others, like Steve Glenn of Living Homes, have pulled it off. Steve was in software and this guy was in sneakers; perhaps it’s the preconceived notions that killed the rest of us.

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