We unveil the future of high-tech individualised prefab – and two manufacturers create it
Design of the home could be liberated by the increasing application and evolution of off-site manufacturing technology, says Darren Richards, operations director of consultant MTech

Off-site manufacture (OSM) is driving the potential for a revolution in the 21st century. Manufacturers, software developers, engineers and architects are promising to transform the industry using CAD and the latest in manufacturing technology. These ideas could turn the traditional hierarchy of clients, contractors and architects on its head.

Our vision for the housebuilding sector is that new homes could be designed and built in a completely different way – a way that puts the responsibility for design not just on architects but on the people who will purchase the property and occupy it – the homebuyer. OSM technology can create efficient design processes, CAD/CAM-linked production and even online designs. To make this happen we need ways to simplify – and partially automate – the design process.

Just as important, we need cost-effective ways to translate designs into innovative solutions, as well as manufacturing techniques so we can produce custom-shaped elements in whatever size and material the designs call for. One example where OSM technology is rising to the challenge is the modern fast-track cladding systems being developed in response to the drive for energy efficiency.

Flexible production, supported by lean manufacturing strategies, will need to underpin an ability to provide unprecedented levels of customer choice, with properties of extremely high quality and reliability at affordable prices. As part of this, good design is recognised as an essential prerequisite for a successful product and this is the opportunity facing the makers of the new OSM solutions.

The efficiencies of mass-customisation really begin to emerge when you take automation beyond the design stage. Information generated online should drive the production line – this is the ultimate in process integration, and it may not be as far away as we might think. While striking the all important balance between commercial affordability and good design, the visionary housing developer should be looking to OSM to offer homebuyers real involvement in the design of their home. Buyers could one day soon be able to specify not just paint colour and carpeting but also room layouts based on standardised dimensions.

IT-controlled mass-customisation can free up design and choice, opening up the possibility of creating homes from an unlimited number of individualised parts. Once CAD and assembly plants are integrated, the possibility of completely new architectural languages opens up.

Reinventing the studio

The trend for off-site manufacturing methods, sparked by the enthusiasm of deputy prime minister John Prescott, is prompting manufacturers to come up with a variety of structural solutions. But not all of them are as brand new as they may first appear. Some echo ideas that manufacturers have tried to introduce before, but that failed to break into the housebuilding mainstream. But as the maxim, says, if at first you don't succeed...

Some architects and developers have said that the ideal product for the key worker market is the studio flat, repackaged as a rather sexier sounding Krashpad or microflat. So far, however, the studio flat has not made much of a name for itself in the residential property market, perhaps because nobody is convinced that nurses and teachers would sacrifice a two-hour commute from a larger apartment for single-room student living and the constant smell of takeaway curry.

That hasn't deterred manufacturer Pyramid Building Systems and Design Group 3 Architects from launching a new company called Modar to produce compact, affordable homes. Modar has so far launched three units, the Base, M1 and M2 units, all based around the same 170 m2 module. Two modules form the Base unit, an open-plan studio apartment with the added sex appeal of a fitted unit incorporating the latest IT facilities. The M1 is a 48.1 m2 one-bed apartment, created from the Base unit plus an extra module. The M2 is a 64.6 m2 two-bed apartment.

Just as the manufactured studio apartment has not yet arrived on the market, so the manufactured house has remained pretty much a pipe dream. Modular houses have been built, notably by Wimpey Homes and the Guinness Trust with manufacturer Britspace, and by Sunley Estates with manufacturer the Elliott Group. For a variety of reasons, such projects have not got beyond the trial stage, although the idea of having a factory-finished house in position in a matter of days remains appealing.

A partnership working in the affordable housing sector believes that it can succeed where others have failed. The Folio Partnership brings together manufacturer OMAR Woodbury, housing association Flagship Housing Group, and contractor Lovell to create modular homes, including houses. With a housing association in the partnership, the enterprise has sites and schemes to develop and is now working on its first site in Norwich

OMAR Woodbury www.omar.co.uk/leisure/woodbury