Above: Andy and Alison Nicholls’ new eco house was manufactured in Germany and erected in just two days on their beautiful Cornish site.
It’s standard practice in Germany and Scandinavia and it’s not exactly a new technique in the UK – our first prefabricated homes appeared in the 1920s but not only is the amount of factory-built housing currently increasing but the extent of the prefabrication is also expanding. So why all the interest now? And what are the practicalities of enjoying a ‘hassle-free’ build
The Design freeze
It only makes sense to build houses in double-quick fashion if there is a design agreed beforehand and stuck to throughout the build. With the best will in the world, this is not the way the typical British building job is organised. We are quite happy to agree basic floorplans and elevations but expect to make decisions about socket placement, floor finishes and kitchens and bathrooms as and when the time approaches. In contrast, a factory housebuilder requires that most of the finish details are decided on before the contract is signed. Typically, they maintain extensive collections of finish materials at their showrooms and many expect you to take some time, up to a week, choosing everything and working out the final pricing.
It is not mandatory to take such an approach. Lots of people will contract a factory housebuilder on a shell-only basis and take on the finishing work themselves. But one of the main attractions for British self-builders is the promise of continuity that comes from placing the order with one highly focussed business that wants to get to completion as quickly as possible. Having a team of craftsmen living away from home working on your job may sound expensive, but it is also likely that they won’t want to be hanging around any longer than they have to, and they certainly won’t be taking off to work on other jobs.
Why don’t the Brits build this way?
There is no easy answer to this. Partly it may be explained by the unique nature of our housing market, where 90% of new homes are speculatively built by professionals. In most other European countries, the self-build sector is significantly larger than it is in the UK, and the very fact that there are more custom homes being built may have encouraged the businesses serving these markets to invest more in delivery and innovation. But the North American market, which also boasts a huge custom homebuilding sector, has developed very differently: prefab building techniques are still in their infancy over there.
So an alternative explanation is to do with cultural differences and, in particular, house types. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Sweden: the typical Swedish house is a very simple affair with a rectangular floorplan, steeply pitched roof and gables at either end. And one Swedish house is also much like another. Both these factors tend to make assembly-line production much more straightforward. In contrast, British homes have many more complex features such as L-shaped footprints, dormer windows and hipped roofs. There is a lesson here for UK self-builders: keep it simple if you want to reap the maximum advantages of a factory house approach.
It is worth mentioning that British housebuilding businesses have tried to build closed-panel homes in the past but with only limited success. Partly this may be due to the more complex house shapes required, but it also appears that their customers found the whole concept of design freeze just a little too hard to handle. It’s one thing to start out with the intention of nailing down every last detail before a spade is so much as lifted in anger, but the temptation to start altering things during the construction process is something that proves to be just too strong for most of us. Once you start altering the pre-arranged plan, you lose most of the benefits of using a factory house approach.
Although there are many similarities between the way the factory housebuilders build and operate, each one is a distinct and separate business and the packages they offer reflect this. The market is best developed in Germany where there are around 100 factory house (fertighaus) builders competing in the self-build market, producing over 20,000 houses a year between them. They are mostly family-owned businesses which have slowly developed into medium-sized private housebuilders, typically producing between 200 and 1,000 houses a year each. In Germany there are four permanently open show sites (www.musterhaus-online.de), with other sites in Switzerland and Austria, where the factory housebuilders erect show homes and compete with one another for customers. Potential customers can visit these sites and compare and contrast the homes from as many as 60 factory housebuilders.
The styles vary from traditional German-style houses to ultra-modern timber homes, many with an eco theme. No one in the UK is realistically going to want to build a Bavarian farmhouse, but the modern styles translate well across borders, and these designs are what is currently sparking interest over here.
No business typifies this better than Huf Haus, the first of the German factory housebuilders to blaze a trail into the UK, with its iconic black timber and glass structures. Its homes are instantly recognisable and photograph extremely well, and an episode of Grand Designs, featuring a Surrey couple who chose to build with Huf Haus, brought a degree of notoriety rare in the self-build sector. It also opened the door to many of the other German factory housebuilders to establish a base in the UK. And in the past year, we have seen Polish and Lithuanian businesses starting here as well, bringing the promise of a similar style of housing but with lower labour costs.
The Swedes, of course, have been selling their version of the factory house for decades and have good reason to feel that they are currently being overlooked in this fascination with all things Germanic. Many of them have long-established relationships with British builders and have worked out how to deliver houses that are acceptable to our local tastes and customs. In fact, the oldest of these businesses, Scandia Hus, has morphed into a UK-style timber frame manufacturer which builds timber frame homes in Sussex to Swedish insulation standards. It provides a complete turnkey package and also has a sister company just building the raw frames for self-builders. Many of the materials used in the houses are sourced in Sweden, so the connection is still very strong, but it is interesting to reflect how this business has developed and to ponder whether any of the new wave of factory housebuilders will end up doing the same thing.
ABOVE: When Matthew and Lesley Borowiecki decided to build their own eco-friendly home, they arranged to import everything from Lithuania — including the timber frame, the kitchen, sanitaryware and even the tiles.
What to look for?
It’s all very well having glossy brochures and cool-looking websites, but building is all about relationships and this is no different just because the house is sourced in a factory. So one of the key things to look for is an active and competent presence locally. Ideally, you want the business to have people on the ground working for them in the UK, either directly or as partners.
Design is also a critical issue. Do you work up your own designs and then take them around the factory housebuilders? Or do you work from the outset with a chosen builder on a design and build basis? To get the most out of a factory build, you ideally want to work with the company from the outset, as it will be able to match your plans to its design strengths and thus eliminate any potential conflicts and cost overruns. However, many people are reluctant to get drawn into such a large contractual relationship before a design has even been agreed. You have to go on ballpark figures from the outset, with the fear that the actual amounts will be substantially different.
If you choose the design and build route, you want to satisfy yourself that the team you are working with has the suitable skills required to design the house you want and to get it through planning permission and building regulations. Whilst the planning issues are essentially no different to any other self-build, the demands of the British building regulations can cause difficulties for Continental housebuilders, especially around issues to do with external wall details. Look to see how your prospective factory housebuilder has dealt with these issues and whether they have a ‘UK-ready’ house type. Ideally, you want to be able to talk to or even visit UK customers and find out whether their experience matched the promise of a hassle-free build.
As you might expect, there is quite a range of costs on offer between the various factory housebuilders. The budget end of the spectrum seems to be offering fully finished homes at around £800-1,000/m²; from the top end, typified by companies such as Huf Haus and Baufritz, the ballpark price will be almost double, but the designs and the feature lists reflect this.
If you visit Sweden or Germany and investigate the local build costs, you will quickly notice that the prices being charged in the UK are considerably higher. But a more relevant comparison is with traditional build costs in this country and here the cost ranges compare quite closely. It’s neither cheap nor easy for the factory housebuilders to work in a distant country and it’s only because building costs are so high in the UK that they can justify a presence here at all.
The world of prefab housebuilding encompasses a wide range of activities. The best known of these is our indigenous timber frame industry that now accounts for around 20% of new homes in England and Wales and as much as 70% in Scotland.
However, our UK version of timber frame is very much a halfway house compared to the Scandinavian and German versions. In Britain, the typical timber frame house consists of the superstructure – the walls, floors and roof – together with some of the joinery elements like stairs, doors and windows. In fact, the amount supplied varies from business to business, something you have to look at carefully when comparing quotations. The timber framers will typically arrange erection of the frame over a period of a week or two, and then pass the finishing tasks back to you or your builder to complete. Some timber frame companies offer a full build service, but they tend to prefer to leave site once the frame is erected.
The way timber frame has developed on the Continent is very different. They key point of difference is that the way the wall and roof panels are made up: instead of leaving them open for finishing on site, they are closed, or factory finished, so that the claddings (typically timber board or rendered panels) and the internal wall finishes are completed. The windows and doors will be in place and even the electrical sockets will be set into the walls in the factory. The houses themselves are still delivered flat-pack and craned into position, but when the erection crew have done their work (which typically takes just 48 hours), you have a house which is around 80% complete.
There is still work to be done. The roof cover is typically added after the erection; the fixtures and fittings and services have to be added; and the internal wall and floor finishes are all added later. But unlike the typical UK timber frame programme, most of the Continental housebuilders are aiming to undertake all the additional works themselves. Typically, they would be expecting to hand over a completed house eight to ten weeks after the frame is erected.