A UK architect is bringing prefab housing to Cuba in the hope that it will eliminate poor quality homes, delays and light-fingered builders. With government backing, residents of old Havana could soon be moving to new homes, leaving their grand colonial buildings for the tourists.
Capitalism is about to roll into Cuba on the back of lorries loaded with Western building materials. Or at least that's what UK architect Studio Bednarski is expecting when it turns Eternit cladding and bundles of Metsec lightweight steel framing into a complete prefabricated housing solution - the like of which has never been seen in Cuba. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Cuban authorities, convinced that modernisation is the key to becoming a top tourist destination, have welcomed the British team.

Studio Bednarski's idea is to speed up the chronically slow process of building new homes in Cuba and to do it for an amazingly cheap £225/m2 - including infrastructure such as roads and landscaping. Developing this idea has been hard work: the firm has had to take standard UK components and turn them into buildings Cubans want to live in, make them hurricane proof and safe from the endemic problem of theft that afflicts Cuban construction.

According to Cezary Bednarski, founder director of the practice, it takes years for anything to get built in Cuba. He should know being married to a Cuban, having been a lecturer there and now writing a guide to the 20th-century architecture of Havana.

"In contrast to fine colonial architecture and the great buildings of the first half of the 20th century, what is being built is Cuba now is rather unappetising. In any case it's mostly hotels and commercial buildings," he says. "Cuban housing is mostly labour intensive in-situ concrete and block, occasionally with a dose of left-over Russian concrete panel prefabricates." He says it typically takes seven years to build a block of flats.

The problem is deeply rooted in the Cuban economy. Bednarski explains. "The Cuban system is idiosyncratic," he says. "You will find many Cubans disappointed by the pay that they get for their work .I know a nuclear physicist who gets $30 a month. He can get $30 a day driving tourists around in a car." This has a particularly damaging effect on the construction industry in Cuba. Bednarski says builders can make far more money doing private work, something they do with materials lifted from the "official" projects they are supposedly working on.

Tourism is one area where the economy is booming. This is the prime motivator for the prefabricated housing system proposed by Bednarski. The old part of Havana has an ample supply of large, attractive 19th-century buildings used for housing families. Sharp-eyed Western developers, in collaboration with the Cuban state, want to turn these into hotels, and decant the families into new accommodation on undeveloped land on the outskirts of the city. But the construction logjam slows this to a snail's pace and frustrated developers have little hope of persuading families to move unless they can make new homes more appealing.

And this is where Bednarksi's system comes in. The apartments will be built using Metsec's lightweight steel framing system faced with fibre cement Eternit cladding boards. The flats are designed around a grid system, making it simpler to create a wide variety of configurations ranging from one- to four- bedroom flats, with other possibilities depending on demand.

Bednarski carefully researched Cuban vernacular architecture to ensure the flats would appeal to the locals. The result is a three-storey block with four two-bedroom flats per floor. The flats are built around two courtyards separated by a single stairwell in the middle of the building. Residents enter the courtyard through gates and then through into their flats.

Cubans will be reassured to find concrete floors inside the flats. Bednarski explains why it was specified. "People in hot climates like it to feel solid and cool underfoot. If it wasn't solid it wouldn't last." The thermal mass of the concrete floors and ceilings will regulate the temperature of the flat and help keep the flats cool in the daytime.

Another typical Cuban feature is a veranda running the length of each flat. This is accessible from the bedrooms and living room and is used for relaxation. The kitchen faces over the courtyard; next to this is a small service balcony with floor to ceiling open grilles instead of windows. This space is used for keeping chickens and washing and drying laundry.

The building has been designed to cope with the peculiarities of the Cuban climate. Because Cuba suffers from hurricanes, the Metsec steel section size has been doubled up to cope. Torrential rains mean guttering and down pipes are useless. Instead water will pour straight off the roof and into the courtyard. Cold bridging is not an issue in the hot Cuban climate, but sandwich wall construction is used to help keep the flats cool.

Metsec and Eternit will do the detailing under the supervision of Studio Bednarksi. The two product manufacturers will also be responsible for training local workers. Other products such as doors and windows, as well as service items, will be sourced cheaply in western countries, such as Italy and Canada. Bednarski reckons that with this efficient supply structure, virgin land without infrastructure could be turned into a finished development in a year, the housing blocks being completed in a matter of weeks. One advantage of this high speed system is that it is less appealing to light-fingered builders. Being custom-designed and delivered to site already cut to size it cannot be used easily elsewhere.

Although deciding on the designs and construction method appears to have been straightforward, the procurement route has been anything but. Bednarski is working for international company Glenview, which will provide the components and build the housing. An Italian company has plans to redevelop one specific block in old Havana housing 118 families. It is working with a Cuban government agency called Habaguanex, which is responsible for rebuilding old Havana and has other business interests including tourism. Habaguanex has to approve the replacement housing. Unusually Bednarski is not being paid a fee for his work. "Cuban architects get $15 to $20 a month so there was no possibility of working for a fee," explains Bednarski. "Instead we decided to do it on a royalty basis of $100 per unit built."

But although most Cubans seem keen for the scheme to move forward, one man's actions have brought work to a (hopefully) temporary halt. Last year President Fidel Castro ordered the execution of three people who were trying to escape on a hijacked ferry and has taken to throwing dissidents in jail. Not surprisingly, this has deterred foreign investors, so the housing scheme is on hold until confidence returns. Meanwhile, Cuban construction methods remain stuck in their old ways and Bednarski is thinking of taking his ideas elsewhere - he has plans to export the concept to Africa and Mexico.