Photos by Caroline Brady

The term “prefab” has a decidedly pejorative connotation in Ireland. We associate it in our mind’s eye with all those Portakabins that were provided in so many schools on a “temporary” basis, only to find that they had become more permanent fixtures, still in use after 20 years.

While we think of a “prefab” as a basic, lower standard of construction designed as a stopgap measure, many Austrians, Germans and Scandinavians have no such hang-ups. Indeed, many of them would prefer to have their houses made in factories rather than on the ground.

I’ve been to Austrian “modular-housing” factories and can honestly say that I was gobsmacked by the precision engineering involved, the high levels of insulation and energy performance, the quality of finishes, fixtures and fittings and the ease of assembly on site.

The houses are mostly traditional-style, with the gable fronts, decorative bargeboards and overhanging eaves so characteristic of Austria. But manufacturers such as Brauchl can produce whatever design you want, from neoclassical to contemporary glass and steel.

Brauchl has built some thousands of houses in Austria inspired by a philosophy of creating a natural healthy living environment. “Only natural materials are used – laminated spruce for the structure, plaster or larch for the exterior skin” and sheep’s wool for insulation.

Another company, Unterluggauer, built a prefabricated house near Oranmore, County Galway, for a German-born couple more than 15 years ago. Designed by Duncan Stewart, it was made to measure in Austria, transported to Ireland by road and then erected on their site.

Both Brauchl and Unterluggauer were interested in the Irish market at one time, even examining the prospects of opening a factory here in a joint venture with an Irish company. But it never came to pass, and we continued building suburban houses with woeful energy performance.

Scandinavian Homes, based in Galway, has built nearly 300 pre-fabricated low-energy and “passive” timber-frame houses here since 1991. Using Swedish building methods, all of these houses have high levels of insulation and are usually air-tight with mechanical ventilation.

Built from “simple natural materials and modern components taking advantage of the latest Swedish research”, the company’s website says it avoids “complex composite materials that are full of glues and other chemicals in order to create healthy and sustainable houses”.

Modular wall sections are made in a factory in Lysekil, a small town on Sweden’s west coast, close to sources of dense quality wood and other components, with the finished product for houses of up to 200 square metres capable of being shipped overseas on a single trailer.

Against this backdrop, Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government Alan Kelly’s initiative to build at least 500 modular homes for homeless families living in hotels or B & Bs – 22 of them “before Christmas” – must be welcomed, particularly if they achieve Austrian or Scandinavian standards.

Site in Poppintree, Ballymun.

Indeed, one must hope that some of the more experienced modular housing manufacturers from abroad were among those who submitted tenders to Dublin City Council this week for the provision of 22 two-storey, three-bedroom houses on a site at Poppintree, Ballymun.

Four other sites have also been identified for modular housing construction, in Ballyfermot, Crumlin, Darndale and Finglas – all, incidentally, working-class areas of the city. Not one is in a middle-class or ritzier area, perhaps because DCC doesn’t own sites there.

Prospective contractors must be in a position to complete the Poppintree scheme within 28 days of an anticipated start date of 23 November, including fabrication of the houses as well as laying foundations, installing services and landscaping the entire site.

A story in the Dublin People freesheet complained that “families housed in the new temporary modular housing units . . . could be left waiting five years or more for permanent homes”, citing as its source Fianna Fáil councillor David Costello, who represents Cabra-Finglas.

Like so many others, Costello appears to be under the illusion that modular housing is in some sense “sub-standard” and “temporary” in nature, rather like Portakabins. “The time families spend in these units will depend on Alan Kelly’s ability to deliver permanent housing,” he said.

However, if the houses are built to anything like the standards that apply in Austria or Scandinavia, there should be no such concern. The families who’ll end up living in them won’t want to leave because their homes would be much more comfortable than a standard “semi-d”.

So let’s park our hang-ups about “prefabs” and see the quality of what’s on offer from the modular housing sector before rushing to judgment about this being nothing more than a “temporary” fix for the scandal of having 637 families in Dublin currently living in hotel rooms.

Frank McDonald is the former environment editor of the Irish Times, and the author of several books, including The Destruction of Dublin (1985), Saving the City (1989), and The Construction of Dublin (2000)....

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  1. Richard Rogers designed Y:cube apartments for YMCA in London. Each unit costs only €42,000.
    We could learn a lot from this factory built social housing development.

  2. Thanks Frank, yes, all this sounds great with cheap AND good prefabs. It is possible to do. We have tried to do this since 1991. Just a few obstacles…. : Our Irish government, various state bodies and County Councils do their damndest to make it as difficult and expensive to build a compact house as they can.

    Sometimes I wonder if they know what they do when they make up endless new regulations on: heath & safety, fire & energy, certifications & approvals, the list goes on and on. Then these nincompoops change the rules back (sort of..-nobody knows) and pretend there was no damage done. (I think of the certified certifiers and new very expensive BCMS system, the internet based management system for planning that is still there)
    Welcome to read more on my blog here:
    all the best, Lars Pettersson, Galway

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