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BUILDING WITH EXCELLENCE - JULY 2013
Architecture of the future
Wellington architect Chris Moller has designed a click-raft building, in which plywood pieces can be clicked into place like Lego.
For most of us, the word prefab conjures up
images of draughty, nondescript boxes that
have served as temporary classrooms over
But a new generation of prefab houses
and baches now sit on sections from one
end of the country to the other.
The prefab - a building that is built or partly
built in a factory and shifted either whole or
in parts to a site - also forms a big part of our
The first New Zealand prefab house was
the Treaty House in Waitangi, built in 1833,
and early immigrants were encouraged to
bring the framework for their cottages with
them in the 1800s.
About 1600 railway cottages were built as
kitsets in a Frankton factory between 1880
and 1929 for North Island railway workers
and their families, with each one taking
about two weeks to put together on-site.
Since the mid-50s, companies such as A1
Homes, Lockwood and Keith Hay Homes
have been providing kitset and prefabricated
homes, but now smaller architectural prac-
tices too are increasingly choosing factory-
based building over the traditional mode of
constructing everything on site.
And the authors of a book about prefab-
ricated houses, and the architects who are
designing them, say we should get used to
it, because residential homes will increasin-
gly be designed on computers and mass-
produced in factories.
"Prefab is absolutely the future of the
building industry," says Mark Southcombe, a
Victoria University senior architecture lec-
turer and co-author of Kiwi Prefab: Cottage to
"There's a huge amount going on in the
prefab sector, and suddenly we've got this
fantastic hotbed of innovation."
Apart from the array of local architects and
companies designing and building prefab
homes, baches, and buildings, Southcombe
points to Austria and California, where pre-
fabrication is now the preferred mode of
building and no longer associated with poor,
"In California, prefab is now associated
with the top end of the market, because the
quality is so much better, as it's all made in
a controlled environment. In New Zealand,
we have a lot of raw timber, and we have the
potential to become a prefab hub for the
The benefits of building parts in a factory
and assembling the building on site are
many, says Southcombe - cheaper and more
cost- effective, quicker from start to finish,
more environmentally friendly, and less affec-
ted by issues such as bad weather.
Southcombe has designed a "jigsaw
house" made out of cross-laminated timber,
which resembles plywood as thick as a wall.
Immensely strong, he says it can be put
together on site in a day.
He's hoping to build a prototype in the
next two years, as part of a university-backed
Chris Moller, of Wellington, has designed a
click-raft building, again with factory- built ply-
wood pieces that can be literally clicked into
place like Lego, the design and layout re-
sponsive to home owners' needs. With a
kindergarten for Christchurch in production
and several houses on the drawing board, he
hopes the end cost will be less than $2000
a square metre (compared with about
$3000 for a non-prefab home).
"My ambition has always been to produce
something of radically better quality, much
faster and cheaper," says Moller.
"The time is right for radical low-impact
houses, for super inexpensive, accessible
places we can live and work in that are in
tune with our fragile planet."
Andre Hodgskin kicked the prefab craze off
with the stylish bach-kit he designed in
2000, and he has since followed it up with
the "ipad" that costs $125,000 for a two-
bedroom place with click-on decks.
Nelson's Irving Smith Jack Architects has
built a "fridge house" out of refrigeration
panels usually used in warehouses or
coolstores. Costing $100,000, it is so well-
insulated that one heater can warm the
whole house in winter.
Architecture students are also involved in
prefab projects. At Victoria University, four
students designed the environmentally
friendly First Light house, which was assem-
bled on-site for an eco-design competition in
Washington DC in 2011, before being pac-
ked up, shipped home and sold off.
For the past six years, a group of Unitec
architecture students has worked annually
with Auckland architect Dave Strachan to de-
sign a two-bedroom prefab bach.
Called Studio 19, the student designers
have completed six such baches, building
them either at Unitec or nearby, and then
trucking them to each site.
Strachan says the advantages are huge.
"One of the big things is that all the re-
sources are handy, such as the tradespeo-
ple. You've got better control over the con-
ditions because everything is built under a
covered area or in a workshop. It's quicker,
and you're not waiting for a plumber to show
and he doesn't turn up because he got too
busy that day."
His firm, SGA, is also embracing the
prefab model, designing homes that are
more efficient, warmer, drier and exceed
Particularly suitable for areas that need
high to medium-density housing, he is cre-
ating a prefab apartment building in Auck-
land that will, literally, be slotted into place
after the walls and other parts are built off-
"The only way to deliver the volumes of
buildings that we need in places like Auck-
land and Christchurch to a high standard is
to use factory standards. You can save
weeks if not months in time."
Wanaka architect Anne Salmond has de-
signed several modular, high-density homes
around Queenstown, a series of prefab-
ricated pavilions responsive to their sites
She also has one at Christchurch's Home
Innovation Village. Built in an aircraft hanger
at Wigan, it was shifted there at 3am one
morning. "It was basically put straight on to
the foundations," she says.
Of benefit to Christchurch quake victims,
she says the whole construction process
could take six to eight weeks rather than six
to eight months - her design takes a month
to six weeks to be built.
However, at the top end of the market,
Salmond expects larger bespoke houses
with bigger budgets to continue to be built on
"We're designing a house with a concrete
roof and that obviously couldn't be a prefab.
However, I do think people will start to think
prefab rather than assuming a house will be
built in the traditional manner. It's
broadened the options of how we can build."
Pamela Bell, chief executive of the newly
formed Prefab New Zealand, says: "Prefab is
going to be increasingly relevant as we try to
solve some of the housing shortages around
Auckland and Christchurch. We can't deliver
the homes that are needed.''
There are challenges for the architecture
community, though. As Southcombe puts it:
"Architects are typically quite sceptical and
cautious about the idea of them repeating a
''But the really important point to make is
that it's very co-operative and cross- disci-
''You get architects, builders and manufac-
turers all working together as a team, not as
Kiwi climate challenges healthy home advocates
There are many reasons that a home can be
damp, but achieving a warm, dry house is
particularly challenging in New Zealand.
About eight litres of moisture is produced
inside the average family home each day,
says Phil Harrison of Harrisons Home En-
''This is fed by hot showers and boiling
pots on the stove, leaks in wall and roof
claddings, and seepage or underfloor dam-
pness, and it has a negative impact on
indoor air quality.''
Over time moisture builds up, and not
only can inadequate home ventilation make
underlying respiratory illnesses worse, es-
pecially for children and the elderly, damp
homes can contribute to the growth of toxic
fungi such as stachybotrys mould, which
causes flu like symptoms in susceptible
''Achieving a high level of air quality is one
of the best things you can do for your family,
but in New Zealand it's particularly challeng-
ing,'' says Phil.
''Because we have a subtropical climate,
our buildings are not as solidly built, or equi-
pped with central heating and air condition-
ing, like those in countries with more ex-
''Additionally, we have less variation be-
tween seasons, so we are less likely to
invest in systems that may only be useful for
a small part of the year.''
Phil says he has noticed that visitors to
New Zealand often comment on how cold
and damp our houses are.
''Insulation and an energy efficient heat-
ing system are essential, as is good building
maintenance, to keep leaks out,'' says Phil.
''After that, you need to consider how you
will ventilate your home.''
He says that for those on a budget, or
wanting to make a quick improvement, ex-
tractor fans are a targeted and relatively
cheap solution ideal for the kitchen and
bathroom, and are already installed in many
An extractor fan, which must be ducted to
the outside of the house to work correctly,
will suck out steamy air and help to prevent
condensation in the kitchen or bathroom.
A heat pump, if suitable for your home,
will operate in the background, and ci-
rculates air as it heats or cools. However, a
sensor controlled home ventilation system
is the most sophisticated and effective sol-
ution, and uses a system of fans and vents
to move air from the warm dry areas under
the roof, into the living spaces.
Sensors control the system, turning it on
and off, and directing air where needed, to
manage the air quality inside the whole
''If you are renting, or installing a house
ventilation system is out of your budget,
keeping windows open, even if just for a
short period of time each day, is something
we recommend to keep dampness at bay,''
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