Lyons O'Neill

How can prefabricated construction work with bespoke site conditions?

The resurgence in prefabricated building can hardly come as a surprise. With the ability to dramatically cut programme time, costs and waste, prefabrication techniques are helping provide solutions to construction’s biggest problems. As concerns over climate change, the economy and housing shortfalls only continue to rise, the race is on to build more efficiently and sustainably; and prefabrication is able to deliver on both. It’s no wonder the prefabricated housing market is estimated to reach $19.3 billion globally by 2024.

However, despite this second wave of popularity, there are still a number of misconceptions around prefabrication. Discussion of anything ‘prefab’ instantly conjures up images of identikit ‘50s modular homes, devoid of style or personality. Aside from the fear that aesthetic will be sacrificed on the altar of efficiency, there’s an idea that building elements offsite means losing subtlety in the construction process. The prejudice remains that for complex site conditions or uniquely designed projects, built onsite is best and any attempt at prefabrication won’t work.

However, news just this summer testifies to the opposite. In July prefabrication hit the headlines as nine pre-built flats were transported from Southampton to Bristol before being craned into place on the city’s Park Street. What’s special about this development is that it’s the first time in the UK that pre-fab homes have been made to fit into an empty, existing property – the flats were inserted into the shell of a former nightclub. It’s a clear example of prefabrication working exceptionally well with bespoke site conditions, demonstrating that complexity doesn’t discount offsite building techniques.

Prefabrication also doesn’t mean a loss of creativity. It may surprise people that even a grand structure like London’s Leadenhall Building (or the Cheesegrater as it’s more commonly known) was built using 80% prefabricated materials. Prefabrication is about increasing efficiency not erasing identity. It doesn’t come with set criteria – it’s simply a very useful tool at a design team’s disposal.

At Lyons O’Neill, prefabrication techniques have played a crucial role in many of our projects. For example, they were an essential part of our work on Melbourn Primary School where we delivered an expansive timber extension to create new classrooms, a staff room, offices, a hall and a lounge for the expanding primary school. Coupled with our use of Cross-Laminted Timber on this project, prefabrication enabled us to work as sustainably as possible, keeping resource use and costs to a minimum. However, the client’s original vision was still brought to life and prefabrication didn’t mean compromising on the brief.

Understanding a site’s context is crucial in building long-lasting and appropriate structures, but a skilled design team uses this information to inform both its onsite and offsite work. Indeed, offsite pre-construction may even be preferable for a complex site, if the local environment poses tricky installation challenges or the budget is especially tight. As the construction industry welcomes the return of prefabricated building we must careful not to revive old prejudices too – the future of our industry depends on it.