FRANCESCO RODELLA | Tungsteno
The gruelling weeks of lockdown that millions of people have endured during this pandemic year have exposed the shortcomings of homes ill-equipped to accommodate their occupants for more than a few hours a day. Small and poorly lit spaces have fuelled the desire not only to consider rural living, but also to seek alternative and affordable options for primary or second homes of the future. This is an opportunity for the development of a new generation of dwellings with one thing in common: they are prefabricated.
The construction sector highlights the fact that the coronavirus crisis has increased interest in industrialised, modular or 3D-printed homes, which are quicker to build and more sustainable without compromising on quality, safety and comfort. New technologies in materials and industrial processes also pave the way for forms of habitability that were difficult to imagine until the recent past.
The advantages of the industrialisation process
Several new models are attracting growing attention, from towable mobile units, such as the 17-square-metre mobile home from the Swedish company Ikea, to prefabricated single-family houses made of concrete, metal or a mixture of the two. Fernando Pérez del Pulgar, architect and lecturer at the University of Málaga, highlights another typology that is becoming more widespread, that of modules made from shipping containers, such as these flats created in Barcelona to provisionally house families in need of access to social housing. But what is especially emerging as the material of the future in construction, says this expert, is wood —thanks to its ecological potential, and to technologies such as cross-laminated timber panels, which are already being used to build skyscrapers—. This innovative alternative to traditional materials such as concrete has proven to be sustainable and safe.
The industrialisation process, which is characteristic of modular housing, has numerous advantages. On the one hand, it makes it possible to shorten delivery times —which can go from the usual 18 to 22 months for the traditional construction of a house to less than a year— and to offer more attractive working conditions, for example for young people and women, in a sector that has been severely affected by a lack of labour in the last decade, according to Julián Domínguez, architect and vice-president of the Platform for the Industrialisation of Housing. "Many of these products currently have selling prices that are a little more expensive or on par with traditional housing, but the prospect is that this could improve a lot as this model spreads," adds Domínguez.
Moreover, the security conditions that these homes tend to offer do not raise any concerns among experts. "Not only that, but they reach standards that traditional construction cannot achieve, as industrial construction processes are capable of achieving levels of quality in the workmanship that on-site work can’t meet under any circumstances," says Pérez del Pulgar. "It is like comparing the precision of a robot weld with that of a human weld," he adds. On the other hand, the architect points out as a disadvantage the necessary adaptation of the design to a specific module size, and he provides an example: "If the building is made of shipping containers, the size of a container becomes the fixed module, and everything must be adapted to this size."
Prefabricated houses are also a solution to guarantee housing for those with fewer resources, such as the flats created with maritime containers in Barcelona. Credit: APROP.
Decades of experience for millions of people
In some countries, manufactured housing has already been well established for decades. The United States is a case in point, as this model has long been part of its settlement process, explains Pérez del Pulgar, an expert on the history of this type of housing. It is estimated that approximately 17 million Americans live in manufactured homes, according to US census data.
This housing model is traditionally associated with social stigmas that contribute to a negative —and often unrealistic— image of run-down trailer parks. But some see them as safe places that facilitate the possibility of neighbourhood networking, as well as the only way for many people to fulfil their ambition to become homeowners. Hence industrialisation becomes a valid way to solve the problem of prohibitive housing prices in certain areas of the country. This is how, for example, big tech companies in Silicon Valley have viewed it in order to guarantee an accessible solution for their employees.
If we return to the situation in Spain, one of the driving forces behind the interest in these products is the circumstances of the pandemic itself, with more people considering changes in their lifestyle, according to companies in the sector. "We have all had to live at home for many months without going out," argues Domínguez, "and now people are demanding a home with better conditions than those we had before." In many cases, adds the architect, these are people in their 30s and 40s with an interest in technology and sustainability, areas that industrialisation makes it possible to develop more effectively by means of, for example, the integration of automated home systems.
3D printing saves time in the production of the materials needed to build houses, but also achieves greater precision in the parts. Credit: Mighty Buildings.
The drive towards 3D printing
A number of recently developed construction methods promise to create promising opportunities in this field. In particular, much attention is being paid to a range of prototypes and to the first housing products already on the market built using 3D printing, a technique that makes it possible to drastically shorten production times. A company in California, for example, is already able to manufacture large housing units in just 24 hours. Other innovative solutions are also being added, such as the hinge system that allows these prefabricated plywood houses to be erected in three hours.
The incorporation of these industrialised processes in housing, according to Pérez del Pulgar, will be progressive and unstoppable, starting with their application for making concrete, wood and steel components. In his opinion, "this first step will be a reality very soon, thanks to the fact that existing 3D printers and laser cutters for these materials enable greater precision and higher production in all the handling work in the factory."
In the longer term, this transformation will lead to a scenario in which machines will gradually replace the conventional worker on the construction site itself, adds the architect. For the time being, modular and prefabricated living solutions are already a viable alternative to traditional housing, as well as being increasingly attractive in terms of time and budget.
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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.