Modular or prefabricated housing has become the cooler, more sustainable method of creating a permanent home

 

Last month, six brands of modular, prefabricated housing units were shown off on a site behind the North Strand Fire Station in Dublin. 

Patrick Bradley's containerbuilt, GrillaghHouse near Maghera,Co Down. Pictures: Aidan Monghan

Tightly engineered, heavily styled up but of undoubted quality, a development of these stackable buildings, it’s said, could accommodate at least some of the almost 700 homeless families in Dublin City alone. 

The problem is currently costing the four city councils in the area of €4.5m in six months of 2015 for hotel accommodation.

Before the showcase even took place, political volleys left-of-centre derided the idea of a firm making money off the back of the homelessness crisis. 

Three ‘pods’ designed by Container City and used as artist residence space at Cove Park, Scotland. The flat roof of a 40’ shipping container lends itself perfectly to a grass roof and sensitive environmental siting. Courtesy of Urban Space Management Ltd.

There’s an unquestioned presumption that modular, movable housing even at up to €80,000 per unit installed, equates to temporary and second rate. Dublin’s deputy lord mayor Larry O’Toole was reported to be utterly opposed to the move.

The rumblings around the Sinn Féin politicians touching on the essential dignity of people being damaged by a modular house on derelict land is a well-meant reaction that goes further than the housing crisis where quantity costings, the speed of erection and long-term investment must hit the bottom line.

The suspicion of the mobile and modular house, with its major components manufactured off-site and not stitched to the ground with a concrete pad and aggregate blocks, runs deep in Ireland.

“Prefabs” are for buildings sites, as stop-gaps for schools, but you shouldn’t have to live in one. 

If you can swing the walls from a crane, if it’s built on a factory floor, not heavily cloaked and adapted to morph into a conventional cement house or an architect’s whimsy — it’s not within our parameters of understanding as a ‘house’.

In Germany and Scandinavia, modular housing is commonplace. IKEA grabbed the headlines in 1997 with its Boklok concept housing and flats. 

In league with Skanska, the units were proudly marketed as large volumes of quality, efficient, seamlessly engineered, factory-built units. www.Boklok.com 

SkyClad Ltd, based in Mullingar, Co Westmeath is one of the six firms which demonstrated their product at East Wall.

A prototype Skyclad home, one of the participating modular houses shown in Dublin last month at the Modular House Solutions showcase. Pic: Fergal Phillips

 The company offers a one-bedroom house (32 sq m), made in Ireland, with U values on par with passive house standards of 0.175W/ square metre K. 

The external walls and roof are structural insulated panels), allowing internal walls to ‘float’ and be moved as necessary.

The system and technology can be used to create a mobile structure or any size of large, permanent house, cheering in a market where the proposition of ‘holiday home’ is often as far as modular suppliers are prepared to go. www.Skyclad.ie 

Timber frame providers after decades of success, remain under the eye of the Concrete Federation of Ireland, and still trumpet the fact that a CAD-designed structural insulated panel brought to the sliced millimetre, can be skinned in bricks and mortar to look like a traditional cavity wall block house. No one will know.

The open plan kitchen of a Boklok apartment. These units are factory built by IKEA in partnership with Skanska. When launched in the late 1990s, Swedish families quequed around the block to sign up for houses and apartments. www.Bloklok.com

Concrete is a fine material with thermal properties, strength and durability. Lightweight blocks and formed wall panels are energising the market. 

However, concrete can add presence to walls and floors in league with other modular materials used for at least part of the build. Is it factory standardisation that rankles? 

Would having more personal involvement in constructing the house make the difference, and move us away from the monumental, time devouring, all-concrete build to a place where traditional, cutting-edge and reclaimed techniques can marry and flourish?

Architect Dominic Stevens built a two- bedroom timber frame 60sq m home in Co Leitrim for €25,000 with labour from family, friends and neighbours.

Dominic Stevens €25,000 build where he lives in County Leitrim. Is the human ingredient of sweat equity enough to overcome our fear of factory made elements and advanced materials?

“I could not pretend that it is easy to build your own house, it is a hard slog and a lot of pressure — for two years it felt like I was either working, building or feeling guilty about not building. 

"However it is really empowering to achieve something like this in your life and you are left with a house without enormous debts,” he says.

Stevens has repaid what he sees as a social debt, publishing plans and instructions for this simple but extraordinary house at www.irishvernacular.com. This could be our new modular.

In the United States, where balloon-frames were commonplace from the 19th century, the deeply offensive label of “trailer trash” is smugly attached to those living in single or double-wide homes that can be craned onto the back of a truck in sections.

However, a new lifestyle movement towards ‘tiny houses’ freed from former expectations of resale value, size and conventional materials is lighting up interiors magazines, blogs, websites and real lives. 

Students who cannot afford to live on campus are towing self-built huts into local woods, and professionals who have the choice to act with delightful eccentricity, are making the move away from the dead-contract of a lifelong mortgage, towards something altogether more inspiring.

US architect Macy Miller lives in Boise, Idaho, and wanted to get off the drawing board and gain experience in actually constructing something when she started her 232sq ft steel-frame house, sided in cut palettes. 

It has cost her in the area of 10 months sweat equity and €8,964. 

Including most mod-cons including under-floor radiant heat, all she tells me she had to sacrifice was a full bath, but the house will in time also slip ‘off-grid’. 

The ‘Tiny House’ home of Idaho architect Macy Miller, built for around $10,000 (€8,964) took 10 months of sweat equity to complete. Read Macy’s story at www.minimotives.com

I asked her was something that moved on a 24ft trailer a real house? 

She spontaneously replaced the word house with home.

“A home should be designed to enable the life you want, whether that is prestige, freedom, simplicity or whatever, your home should be a ‘safe base’ and a tool that helps you live the life you want while protecting you from the elements. It’s just an object,” she says.

Firms like Bungalow in a Box in Woolwich, Maine, offer tiny house fans a chance to get their hands at least dusty, with a weather-tight DIY build for around €41,102 for a 16f tx 24ft house with structural insulated panels or timber-frame walls. 

Exquisitely small, statement tiny houses, and Susan Susanka’s ‘Not-so-big-house’ principle demonstrates that there is another way when it comes to suitable square metres.

Paul’s Shed by Nathalie de Leval designed and made as part of The Wish List, a unique project created by the American Hardwood Export Council, and Benchmark Furniture for the London Design Festival 2014 to celebrate the versatility of timber for design, and its environmental credentials. Image: Petr Krejci Photography

Container housing is something of a darling on both sides of the Atlantic, and most markedly in Australia, as it abridges the industrial aesthetic, recycling and the hunger for difference with affordably. 

Termed inter-modular steel building units in the States, homes or boutique sheds, vacation space and full houses can be delivered up using one container or by slicing, cantilevering and bolting together 50 or more.

Containers can be added to other structures, such as extensions and Bauhaus-like wings, the roof finished in grasses. 

Built to travel by container ship, they stack beautifully in a confined footprint. 

Standard domestic prices start realistically around €20,000 for a finished one-container studio, but values for high profile multi-container projects such as Crossbox House, by CG Architects Pont-Péan in France are rising and in some cases exceeding six figures at sale.

Patrick Bradley’s containerbuilt, GrillaghHouse near Maghera,Co Down.

Patrick Bradley’s magnificent container-built, Grillagh House near Maghera (Northern Ireland), made Channel 4’s Grand Designs last year. www.Pb-architects.com 

Choosing a sound, suitable container, moving it, voiding out the ‘monocoque’ fabric while retaining its structural integrity — this is a highly skilled job. A dry house is essentially framed up inside the structure where the chassis and body are one.

When you start playing Jenga and going up, it’s vital to have an engineer and architect involved. 

Commercial solutions include homes made from containers built as homes, rather than homes built from used containers. 

Mac Container Company (UK) offers a whopping 40ft x 12ft double bedroom container home priced from €34,560.

Can’t contain your excitement to go DIY? Try the sensible and informative primer at: www.residentialshippingcontainerprimer.com 

WFH Shipping container house by Arcgency of Copenhagen

Strangely, for all our fears and prejudices towards McMansions at home, we will throw ourselves down in a blissful heap in yurts, tents, woody chalets and even Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes while on holiday. 

Granted, tenting or a soft wall like those in the meltingly beautiful WhitePod eco-resort is Switzerland, might appear vulnerable to rough attack by the TV license inspector or anyone well armed and wanting to get in.

Still, here comes the science: “the lower the ratio of a building’s outside perimeter to its enclosed living area, the less energy is required for building, heating and cooling. 

The energy required to heat and cool a dome is about 30% less than a conventional building.”( www.whitepod.com ).

Containers are just the foreword on the more energetic exploits in recycling the commercial to the residential. 

Trains and planes have drawnan audience of builders drawn to their transporting charm, acquired history and bullet-proof engineering. 

A fabulous multi-container house by Future City Architects (Aus). The walls and chassis of a container give it its structural integrity, so playing Jenga at this height requires a seasoned engineer and architect on site. www.futurecityarchitects.com.au

Slender for room-scapes in a year round residence, UK rolling stock is available from €20,750 for a good 1960’s MK2 carriage ( www.Carriage-exchange.org.uk ). 

The wings of large commercial aircraft including the iconic 747 have been used as beautiful roofs —while the Amsterdam houseboat community (divided assiduously into stationary decommissioned barges, working boats and the much reviled floating mobiles homes) has developed into ferociously guarded legacy within Dutch families.

Where hippies were willing to experiment in alternative dwellings, millions of euro now changes hands for the 2,500 or so moorings in the downtown canals.

Suited as narrow cottages for the true enthusiast, commercial becomes delightful domestic with a MK2 1960s railway cottage from €21,000 unrestored (and in place). To try out the sleeper experience try www.railwaystationcottages.co.uk, including this beauty at Brockford Sidings in Cornwall from €377 a week (sleeps 6).

With floating gardens, and strapped into multi-vessel residences with a run-around speed boat for shopping, they demand a scaled-down lifestyle and deliberate decision-making about furniture and features to be included.

Finally, to see inspired compact and comfortable design, take a wander through Hive Haus (as featured on George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces on C4). 

The hexagonal ‘living cells’ by Barry Jackson are a clear demonstration that the public mood is shifting on the maligned pre-fabricated build.

Following pioneers into modular house design and wrestling with bold DIY adventures — are we brave enough to take a lead?


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