The difference between Bryden Wood and other architects that have embraced modular design, however, is that the practice has submerged itself so deeply in the practical details and industrial processes of prefabrication that it acts as an industrial designer, or even a production engineer.
This ability has driven the partners into becoming prefab entrepreneurs: they have set up their own assembly plant in Hull in a joint venture with Commercial Systems International, a local curtain wall manufacturer. Trade contractors such as NG Bailey are brought into the manufacturing process by supplying pre-tested components to order.
Engineering consultants, or more precisely individuals within practices, contribute to the design process, although Bryden Wood, as lead consultant, insists on carrying out all design drawings itself. These individuals are structural engineer Jim Gardner of Alan Baxter Associates, services engineer Richard Simpson of Oscar Faber and public health engineer David George of Arup. Simpson gives an idea of the level of design detail involved. "We spent several days around a table discussing a pipe bracket. In system building, a pipe bracket is such a fundamental part of the whole design concept and installation process."
And unlike other architects, Bryden Wood resists the seductiveness of large volumetric pods or boxes, which are effectively miniature buildings in their own right. "Everyone wants iconic images of large modules or pods to hang their hat on," says Martin Wood (left in the photograph, opposite). "But the iconic box is a stumbling block, because it doesn't have flexibility."
In the seven years of Bryden Wood's existence, the London-based practice has designed prefabricated modules for toilets, hotel bedrooms, service spines, a cyber cafe and street market stalls.
"The products we design are incredibly eclectic and range from the biggest thing you can put on the back of a lorry, like the services spine for a server farm in Madrid, down to something so small you can hold it in your hand. We have lots of subsets of techniques that we can combine in different ways to achieve flexibility."
Although revolutionary for an architect, the assembly plant set up by Bryden Wood is a basic affair in an industrial shed. "The key is not to rely on large production lines," says Wood. "All you need is an assembly point for a lot of components. You don't need sophistication, because this is taken care of by the component manufacturers who use computer-controlled techniques."
And Hull has several big advantages. "It's is a cheap place to build – industrial labour costs there are just a third of site labour costs," says Wood. "It has a skilled workforce, good links to the Continent and various useful light engineering companies scattered around."
Before setting up on their own, Mark Bryden and Martin Wood worked at high-tech architect Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners, and still work for the practice as subconsultants, designing phases of the Igus factory in Germany. The partners still believe in employing architects rather than industrial designers. "Architects get the wider picture, and it's better getting them to look at the detail than trying to get an industrial designer with a narrow perspective to think wider. They are able to apply lateral thinking to services and production design."
Despite its immersion in industrial processes, Bryden Wood has not abandoned its architectural roots. This is obvious in the high-tech visual elegance of its designs, as in the Zeds modular hotel system. It is also evident on a more practical level in its ability to make the most efficient use of space within its buildings.
Bryden Wood is not on course to become a great signature architect like Grimshaw, but it could still have a profound if inconspicuous impact on efficient building design and production.
Bryden's bijou berths
Bryden Wood has designed a modular hotel called Zeds, in which bedrooms, complete with showers, can be simply stacked on top of each other. An eight-room prototype was built two years ago at the works in Hull, and planning applications have been submitted for three sites in London and Manchester.
Zeds is the concept of an ad-hoc innovations company, Hamstead Securities, rather than an established module manufacturer such as Yorkon, which perhaps explains why it has taken 10 years to reach planning application stage. Undeterred, the company claims that where Zeds scores over existing volumetric budget hotel systems is that it is considerably more compact, which means – Bryden Wood says – that it is about one-third faster and cheaper to build, and that more revenue-producing bedrooms can be fitted in the same building envelope. This, in turn, allows the system to better exploit expensive city-centre sites where tourists want to stay.
A Zeds bedroom measures 2.4 × 4 m internally, or 9 m2, whereas a conventional volumetric bedroom measures at least 15 m2. This compact form enables two hotel bedrooms with an intermediate stretch of corridor to be prefabricated as a single module measuring 10.35 × 2.6 m, which is small enough to fit on the back of a lorry.
"As architects, we have brought a greater interest in the compact design of space," says Martin Wood. "We have tried to bring a sense of design and quality to a smaller footprint. It's like the difference between a caravan and a luxury yacht: The yacht is smaller inside but it is more attractive to live in."
Bryden Wood's design includes sophisticated space-saving features. Two fitted bunk beds at right angles to each other and a triangular shower allow space to expand from the doorway to the main living area of the room. Other features are psychological: the shower room is encased in translucent panels so that that it appears as part of the main volume of the room, and high-quality materials, including polished hardwood, give a sense of luxury.
Zeds has one final competitive trick up its sleeve. The modules are made as rigid steel stressed-skin boxes, which means they can be dismantled and relocated on short-term sites.