First person Bathrooms prefabricated in the 1960s were a flop, despite cutting-edge design. But were they merely ahead of their time?
Prefabrication is cool again. One of the features of the much trumpeted Montevetro apartments being built by Richard Rogers Partnership and Taylor Woodrow in Battersea, south-west London, is that their bathrooms have been preassembled in Denmark before being delivered to site, slotted into place, plumbed in and wired up for power.

In reality, the idea of prefabricated building elements has never been absent. I was talking to a McDonald’s executive who told me that the average time between identifying a site and registering the first sale on the till was 18 months. However, most of this time was spent negotiating leases and obtaining consents, as the burger firm had managed to reduce the period between actual “groundbreak” and opening for business to nine days. This speed can only be achieved using prefabricated elements, and the end product is often far closer to caravan technology than to that of conventional building.

What is new at Montevetro is that prefabrication of this type has become acceptable in millionaire private housing. Prefabrication was the building buzzword in the 1960s. Architectural students, fired up with enthusiasm after listening to Buckminster Fuller with his geodesic domes, or Archigram and its “walking cities”, were desperate for a chance to demonstrate their own contribution to the white heat of the technological revolution. This meant either making wonderful elements out of glass fibre or having special elements prefabricated off site, or preferably both.

One young firm found itself with the job of refurbishing a group of large Victorian houses that were to be used as an international student hostel. There was absolutely no question of these guys opting for “sensitive restoration”, and there was no conservation lobby to stop them striding boldly into the future. Grp was the cutting-edge material and “plug-in” the call of the moment. The requirement to refit the services was the chance for these bright-eyed technofreaks to demonstrate their mastery of both.

They managed to persuade their clients that the answer to all their problems was to let them tear down the rear extensions and replace them with towers of prefabricated bathroom pods stacked one above the other, clipped together and then bolted on to the back of the existing houses – an attractive and mouldbreaking solution with which the architects enthralled the nascent style press.

However, the actual commissioning of these pods proved rather more difficult. As is so often the case with this dream of prefabrication, each project requires a prototype to be designed and manufactured. So, what started out being a cheap and cheerful option rapidly became less cheap and a great deal less cheerful as the cost of actually fabricating the moulds began to add up.

The hostel was left with an installation so up-to-the-minute nobody knew how to repair it, and a garden full of portable loos

The services and sanitary provision, which was originally allocated 20% of the budget, accounted for nearly 90% as the complexity of the teenage futurists’ space project bit more and more fiercely into the available funds.

As a result, the standard of the rest of the refurbishment had to be cut to the bone in order to fund the architects’ vision. By the time the hostel opened for business, complete with bold new service towers, it had to be refurbished with woodchip wallpaper and surface-fixed wiring.

Anyway, the great day dawned when the first foreign students arrived. Unfortunately, some from the less developed countries were fairly unused to Western-style plumbing of the ordinary variety, let alone these Apollo 11 plug-in grp bathroom towers in fluorescent orange and green, stacked in their continuous (more or less) interlocking spirals, and with the moulded sanitary fittings cantilevering out of a central serviced spine.

Not unreasonably, some visitors more used to squat lavatories chose to perch on the edges of the projecting lavatory pods. Not surprisingly, the weight of the heavier students caused the pans to be ripped off their monocoque moorings. And the client was left with an installation that was so up-to-the-minute, nobody knew how to repair it. The hostel ended up with a garden full of portable toilets, and the cause of the prefabricated bathroom dream was put back by a quarter of a century.