For the past 50 years we’ve fretted and failed to find a way to make the most of prefabrication. Now we’ve cracked it, thanks to China, the humble shipping container and a way to make the most of both of them

It wasn’t long ago that Sir John Egan was derided for daring to suggest that the construction industry needed to learn lessons from the global car manufacturers. Last month the Financial Times ran a story headlined “Travelodge checks in hotel room modules from China”.

Okay, these particular modules weren’t made in a car plant but in a factory in southern China that makes shipping containers by the million. It is my confident prediction that within 15 years purpose-built plants round the world will be turning out over a million building modules a year. Within 50 years (and you can email me in 2058 if I’m wrong) most new buildings will be factory manufactured for low-tech site assembly.

Before getting too carried away, I do have a personal interest to declare. I’m proud to be chairman of Verbus Systems, which came up with the idea of “giant Lego”: self-supporting cellular structures up to 17 storeys high that can be created from pre-finished

click-together modules. By introducing car production and transportation techniques into our industry, the Verbus System will revolutionise building construction.

Verbus is a joint venture between George & Harding and Buro Happold. It was Egan, through his ill-fated Rethinking Construction report, that brought us together. Rod Macdonald, chairman of Buro Happold, and I were founder members of the Movement for Innovation, set up 10 years ago to implement Rethinking Construction. The main recommendations were integrating the process and standardisation through off-site manufacture.

We were already using proprietary modules for hotels, but in 2000 we designed and made enough bedroom units for three small Travelodges. This was followed by six classrooms. Although we had them in use within three months of site possession, we couldn’t get the price below traditional build.

We could engineer the first major advance in construction technology since the introduction of the steel frame

Buro Happold was independently working on several shipping-container-based project studies. When one required the involvement of “an innovative constructor that could be trusted”, Rod called me. Although that particular project was a no-go, we both agreed that there was a good idea “somewhere there”. Verbus Systems was formed in 2003 when we were joined by Rufus, my construction manager son, David Heather, a specialist in shipping container manufacture and initially by Richard Ogden, now chairman of Build Offsite. Two years ago Paul Blackmore joined us as managing director and Paul Rollet as sale director.

We quickly realised that shipping containers weren’t right for construction, but container engineering technology and production line manufacturing were perfect to make practically dimensioned modules of buildings. It then dawned on me that if the module width was 3.6m, you could stack two of them on three standard 2.4 × 12m shipping containers and transport them around the world as if they were containers themselves. Now we could make serious construction modules, lift and transport them anywhere using our patent handling and locking system. More importantly, a global market generates production that brings project costs below traditional construction.

The key to Verbus’ success has been integration and collaboration. First, between the Verbus directors and the many staff of George & Harding and Buro Happold who have provided most of the design, product development and construction management services. Second, the collaboration of our supplier, one of China’s most successful manufacturers, many of whose senior engineers are graduates of UK institutions. Third, the collaboration of our customers, particularly Paul Harvey, Travelodge’s director of property and development. Paul allowed George & Harding to try out 12 prototype modules at Warminster, then the first

nine-storey, 130-bed Travelodge in Uxbridge, the subject of the FT’s report, and another with 306 bedrooms that we’ve started at Heathrow. Specific variant modules are now being supplied for other hotel operators with student accommodation and housing versions to follow soon.

For most of our careers, Rod Macdonald and I have independently been looking for better ways to build. But we never dreamed that through our collaboration we could “engineer” the first major advance in construction technology for 100 years, since the introduction of the steel frame. Perhaps the car makers may even switch to making more socially and environmentally responsible products – like houses.