Ove Arup's ex-Jaguar man wants to use automated car production techniques to take factory built housing a step beyond current models.
John Miles and John Lyle of Ove Arup & Partners are clearly tickled to hear about Yorkon's prefabrication techniques for the Peabody Trust's innovative volumetric housing scheme under construction in north London.

"Finishing and fitting-out account for the majority of costs in house construction," says Miles. "So, if you are undertaking modular construction, it doesn't make sense to carry out these operations in the factory yard, as Yorkon does. Finishing and fitting-out have to be part of the main production line inside the factory." Yorkon could well return the compliment and laugh at Ove Arup's tentative steps into modular housebuilding. The engineer has not built even a prototype modular house yet. In fact, Miles does not even intend to build and sell houses. His aim is to sell the blueprint for a factory that produces them.

Now Ove Arup's head of technology, Miles is a car designer by training. What makes his modular housing initiative different is that he plans to apply automated car production techniques to as much of the process as possible – and all within a factory.

Miles hopes to sell his brainchild to private housebuilders, but he knows this will not be easy. "The only issue for housebuilders is capital cost," he says. "And nobody has yet delivered prefabricated housing cheaper than conventional construction on site." Miles' brainchild is a 5000 m2 factory that could be built and equipped for £3m-5m, and would break even if it produced 500 houses a year. "We are aiming at the third division of housebuilders and above in Britain and volume housebuilders in the Far East," he says.

Curiously, the construction form envisaged by Ove Arup has nothing to do with the lightweight metal systems of the car industry. Just the opposite; it is proposing a heavy, precast concrete system that harks back to the 1970s.

"Heavy doesn't necessarily equal bad," Miles explains. "Concrete has superb thermal and acoustic attributes, and you can stack the modules up to 40 storeys high, whereas you're struggling to reach five in steel. What's more, concrete is very cheap, and it cuts out plastering and finishes." The proposed production line starts with a series of tilt tables on which the concrete panels are cast. Once cured, the panels are assembled into 3D modules in an elaborate and expensive "cathedral jig". This ecan be adjusted to locate the panels precisely to their design dimensions, overcoming the wide dimensional variations in cast concrete.

After assembly, the module moves along rollers down the production line through another 10 or so stations, where different stages of fitting-out are done. The whole industrial process could be finished in 24 hours, claims Miles, with an entire housing development completed within three weeks of placing the order.

Miles and Lyle stress that they want "Rolls-Royce creative design", but they are deliberately vague about the design and appearance of the factory produced house. Lyle says: "You don't want to lock into a particular design because with low-cost, agile production systems you can easily vary the design to suit the customer. We would like to bring together designers, car stylists and architects."

Miles was once employed by Sir John Egan's old firm, Jaguar, and is an eager supporter of his lean production principles. He claims that Ove Arup's proposed modular housing system would meet six of Egan's seven key performance indicators. The one indicator that he admits would be very difficult to achieve is reducing capital costs by 10%. But he is looking for a housebuilder game enough to take up the challenge.