New Technology in Housebuilding: A Review


An ISR Technology, management & business growth study


CONTENTS

1. Introduction

2. Recent technical-product developments in conventional housebuilding

3. Computerization

4. Prefabrication and system building

5. Prefabricated and system built hotels

6. Factory-made and fitted-out individual dwelling rooms

7. Mobile homes, cabins, and lodges

8. Timber and steel frames

9. Concrete

10. Plastic

11. Marketing innovative housing products and production technologies

12. Summary and conclusions

1. Introduction

Over recent times, technical advances have significantly improved the quality of conventionally built new homes. Firms now use computers extensively in the design, building, and marketing of homes. Some companies also utilize new industrial materials and factory-based methods to make innovative forms of residential accommodation.

However, housebuilding is still technologically traditionalistic by comparison with other consumer durables industries. The search for a high quality low cost factory-made housing product with mass-market appeal has been going on for a long time – and manifestly, still has far to go.

This article looks at the capacity of new industrial methods and materials to produce good quality homes faster and more cheaply. It examines the advantages of specific technologies; and it considers the scope for manufacturing and marketing yet more innovative housing in the future.

2. Recent technical-product developments in conventional housebuilding

In housebuilding as in other manufacturing industries over the years, technological developments have helped firms reduce costs, contain prices, and raise product quality.

Significant technical advances have taken place in many of the production methods and materials used in housebuilding. New ICT technology has also helped firms reshape their business organization, improve site management and marketing, and provide home buyers with better after-sales support on niggling problems (etc.). As a result, firms have been able to grow and increase their profitability.

Among other things at site level, digging and materials handling operations have now been largely mechanized. Modern houses in general are built on more secure foundations than their traditional counterparts. There is much greater knowledge and information nowadays on (e.g.) the moisture requirements of trees, the effects of removing or planting trees on shrinkable clay soils, and safe foundation depths for clay sites where there have been trees. Significant advances all round have been made in the technology of building on bad ground – from suspended floor construction on sloping sites to specially designed and engineered foundations on sites where the ground is potentially unstable.

Meanwhile, roof design and construction have improved as a result of such things as the use of diagonal bracing to eliminate roof spread and new and better technical specifications for flat roofs.

The average quality of the bricks and other materials and components used in housebuilding has also risen. Inter alia, independent scientific R&D advances, international trade liberalization, and stronger domestic market competition and customer pressures have helped to stimulate technological innovation and reduce costs/prices in the building materials industry.

Significant advances have occurred in thermal and noise insulation and the preservation of materials.

Heat losses have been reduced and energy saved through cavity wall infilling, better loft insulation, and the development of new types of covering for pipes and the tops of water tanks (etc.). There is now much better preservative treatment of timber frames during production, while problems of damp penetration and dry and wet rot have been reduced by the introduction of stronger sealants for floors, walls, and doors and windows (etc.). Housebuilders have substituted many other stronger and more-durable industrial plastic (etc.) items for traditional building materials and components prone to corrosion, flaking, pitting, splitting, or warping.

Finally, there has been substantial development of computing technology in the industry.

3. Computerization

Computerization is not as advanced in housebuilding as in many other industries. However, computers are nowadays widely used to (e.g.):

  • store and process data on building inputs of various kinds;
  • maximize dwelling design potential;
  • generate construction and materials/components delivery schedules;
  • store and process data relating to sales, personnel, and material costs and performance;
  • perform accountancy and general financial management tasks; and
  • generally speed and simplify project administration.

Two major goods are supplied in conventional housebuilding: dwellings and the land on which they stand. Thus, housebuilders have to make two major sets of business-financial calculation.

Among other things, land costs have to be estimated in relation to house prices; developers have to calculate the likely impact of changes in housing market supply, demand, and price variables on the land market – and vice versa; and the optimal or profit-maximizing density and mix of dwellings on particular sites has to be determined.Firms initially use computers to source and assess the viability of land purchases/investments and then to estimate the costs of installing water and sewerage and other facilities in housebuilding projects and to calculate the marginal costs and returns of putting additional dwelling units on particular sites (etc.).

Using computers tends to considerably reduce the size and complexity of the tasks involved in decision making over land resources. The importance of accurate calculation in the field of land investment and utilization has risen as the importance of the land factor in overall housebuilding costs has increased.

However, in these as in other applications, the usefulness and accuracy of the estimates generated by computers will depend on how good is the raw data inputted in the first place. Business financial, market demand, and other forecasts will all have to be updated as the variables on which they are based change.

Apart from land, housebuilders use computers to source and estimate the cost-benefits of business finance, labour, and building materials and components of all kinds.

Before housebuilding starts, firms use computers to predict future housing market conditions and prices; cash inflows and outflows over the various stages of projects; profit margins on individual housing unit sales; aid the design of dwellings; and plan projects as a whole.

Both housebuilders and their building trade suppliers use computers to estimate the quantities of materials and components required by projects – and then to monitor/control production and delivery processes once projects get under way. Sub-schedules of work for particular operations and/or individual dwellings as well as whole projects may be computer generated.

Efficient computer-aided scheduling saves time and money by ensuring that building materials, heating systems, kitchen and bathroom ware, and other components are supplied and taken delivery of just in time – precisely when and where required.

JIT is not as developed in housebuilding as in some other industries. There is generally less scope and incentive for JIT when projects are comparatively small and short in duration. However, computer programming improvements and cost reductions have increasingly enabled even very small businesses to benefit from the technology.

Building trade suppliers can work directly from housebuilders’ own computers to estimate material quantities and schedule deliveries (etc.). In turn, relevant data can be automatically fed onto international wholesalers and primary producers (etc.).

Computer-aided just-in-time production and delivery has resulted in significant cost savings along the entire length of the new housing supply chain. The average size and costs of inventories has been reduced. Losses from on-site pilfering and breakage have been cut; and problems of the deterioration of materials because of prolonged storage and repeated handling have been substantially overcome.

4. Prefabrication and system building

Housebuilders have long used factory-based prefabrication and system methods to construct houses faster and more cheaply.

Timber-frame is a very ancient form of this technology. In Britain, specialist producers have been supplying standardized timber frames and other housing components for quick assembly on external sites at least since late medieval times. The frames are erected on pre-prepared foundations, and then the walls, roofs, and cladding (etc.) added.

Over the years, significant improvements have been made in the fire protection and general preservation of timber house frames. Timber frame housing is not inherently different in size, shape, or general outward appearance from brick- and block-built housing. Both types of modern home tend to be finished off in the same way and equipped with the same kind of plumbing, gas, and electricity services, and kitchen and bathroom facilities (etc.).

So far as other materials are concerned, prefabricated concrete structures such as reinforced concrete columns and floor frames for finishing-off with curtain walls, windows, partitions, and services (etc.) are commonplace in medium- and high-rise apartment buildings.

The technology has also been developed for automatically pressing entire bungalow-type dwellings and even detached two-storey house shells out of concrete, plastic, carbon fibre, steel, aluminium, and other industrial materials on a continuous process production basis.

In Britain, cheap prefabs were mass-produced after the Second World War by methods similar to those used in building aircraft and automobile bodies. The component structures were transported by lorry to pre-prepared sites, and the dwellings then quickly assembled and fitted out. Many of the detached single storey aluminium prefabs were still standing (and popular with their occupants) decades later.

However, housing pre-fabrication and system building has in general been far more common in North America and Scandinavia than in Britain.

In the United States, one major general factor that has tended to favour system building over the years has been a greater differentiation between the land development/investment and building functions. There are many more firms and individuals involved in pure land development/investment in the US than in Britain. American landowners are more likely to buy-in or contract-out housebuilding and other construction work – whereas the owners of building land in Britain are more likely to be constructors also.

In both countries, land owners and investors aim to make money through speculative real estate deals and building developments – and putting up new buildings is a standard way of adding value to land. However, when the owners of sites are not builders themselves they have to shop around for constructors.

Greater contracting-out and stronger pressures from clients and competitors have made for generally higher speeds, lower costs, and more innovation in building in America than in Britain.In the case of housebuilding, system construction is more widely established as a means of making operations simpler, faster, and cheaper. Among other things, it reduces the amount and range of materials that have to be kept on site. Once the slabs have been laid, specialist suppliers or sub-contractors can move in to quickly erect the frames, assemble other components, and carry out the fitting-out work (etc.).

More use of prefabrication and system building methods would undoubtedly increase productivity and reduce housebuilding times in Britain.

There has been some movement in the American direction in the UK of late.

Tax incentives and other factors have increased the number of speculative land developers/investors in the market for new lower-cost building methods. The high and rising cost of land has also encouraged building developers in general to search for cost savings in other areas. However, traditional housebuilding firms still have by far the biggest share of the market in the UK, and British landowners are still much more likely to be builders in their own right.

More purely speculative investors involved in housing development would almost certainly increase the pressure for innovative system (etc.) housebuilding in Britain. But there would still remain significant obstacles in the form of technical-product conservatism on the part of households and mortgage lenders plus political-legal development planning barriers.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, concrete system homebuilding came under considerable opprobrium in Britain. The industrialized concrete-based system method of building high-rise and deck-access municipal housing blocks was virtually abandoned because of the poor quality of the materials that had been used, numerous inherent production defects, and the aesthetically displeasing character of the end product.

Not just concrete-based but other pre-fabrication and system housebuilding methods fell into disrepute. Even through timber-framed housing had been around for many centuries in the country, this production mode also suffered from adverse media publicity.

5. Prefabricated and system built hotels

Far from being inherently less sound than conventional brick and block methods, prefabrication and system-building technology has various major advantages in housing production. Most of the techniques and materials used have steadily improved over the years. The production mode is in widespread use not only in housebuilding overseas but also in industrial-commercial building.

There are various comparatively advanced construction methods and materials currently used in industrial-commercial building that might usefully be transposed to housebuilding.

In terms of function, hotels are little or no different from private dwellings. However, prefabrication and system methods using new kinds of material are currently widespread in modern hotel building.

Complete rooms may be factory-built and transported to sites by truck in order to construct modular one- or two-storey hotels (motels, sleeping lodges). The units will typically be dropped into place by crane, linked together and fixed in concrete, and then clad and otherwise finished off. Individual room modules or pods can be practically self-contained dwellings in themselves.

The frames and cladding might be of timber, steel, aluminium, plastic, pre-cast concrete, or other materials. In addition to the basic structural prefabrication work, such tasks as insulation, plastering and decorating, and fitting with windows, bathroom facilities, and lights, and fixed furniture may be carried out at the factory-stage.

Significant savings in building time and labour and other input costs can be made by this kind of factory-based production. The quality/performance of the buildings can be more easily assured and predicted. Where buildings are modular in design and construction, the accommodation can also be relatively easily extended or adapted in other ways to changing requirements.

Like cars and other manufactured durable products, prefabricated hotel buildings may be branded with distinctive corporate images or logos. Such styling might not be acceptable to the occupants of factory-made private dwellings. However, the employment of good high-tech designers and finishing-off in attractive colours, textures, and surrounds could give such homes considerable aesthetic appeal.

6. Factory-made and fitted-out individual dwelling rooms

In some regeneration and re-modelling schemes, the builders insert factory-made and fitted-out individual room units or pods into the shells of houses or other buildings that have been gutted for renovation. As in the case of prefabricated hotel rooms, these private dwelling rooms may be fully fitted-out with kitchen facilities, wiring, radiators, cupboards, floor tiles, and wall mirrors (etc.) at the factory stage.

Typically, the old building being renovated will have been practically demolished except for its facade and front floor. New solid concrete floors and drainage systems will be laid, and then metal sole plates or timber skis fitting the perimeters of the factory-made room units fixed in place.

The room units or pods will typically be brought down from the factory by articulated lorry, craned into the building shell, attached to the walls with ties, and stacked up from the ground floor. The doors will be cut in at the places required, the services connected, and the new walls and other external parts of the buildings clad in appropriate brick or tiles (etc.).

Factory-made and fitted-out room units of this kind tend to be especially useful where (e.g.):

  • very decrepit houses with bulging walls and leaning backs are being renovated;
  • conventional restoration work would be highly labour intensive, time consuming, or require specialist craft skills; and
  • large houses or other buildings are being converted into flats.

Reductions in building times of more than 50% can be achieved. The technique saves on labour and loan interest charges; reduces wastage through pilfering and the deterioration of materials on site; and cuts down on building noise and other nuisance to neighbours.

7. Mobile homes, cabins, and lodges

Mobile homes, cabins, and lodges are by far the commonest forms of factory-built and fitted-out dwelling.

Modern factory-built mobile homes (caravans, trailer homes) are often spacious and very well furnished. Their central heating, refrigerators, microwave ovens, bathrooms, showers, whirlpools, flush toilets, and telecommunications (etc.) can easily match those of conventional fixed dwellings.

Mobile home parks for permanent residence are widespread across the United States. In Britain however, the sites mainly provide accommodation for temporarily resident holidaymakers and travellers.

Mobile homes tend to be cheap. Most new ones can be purchased for a fraction of the cost of the nearest equivalent single-storey fixed dwellings, and even greater savings can be made by purchasing older and smaller caravans with fewer fixtures and fittings.

Portable cabins are widely used in the civil engineering and construction and other industries that have to accommodate staff working away from home for long periods. Municipal authorities may also use portable cabins to accommodate homeless people more cheaply and/or to a higher standard than would be provided by traditional boarding houses and bed-and-breakfast hotels.

Like caravans, fixed cabins and lodges are a popular form of holiday accommodation in rural and seaside areas. They too can be put on permanent sites – with communal lounge, kitchen, bathroom, and other facilities, utilities, and services provided alongside if required.

All such accommodation may be attractive not only to travellers/temporary workers and persons wanting cheap second homes/holiday accommodation but also to lower income households in general and municipal authorities who have to accommodate large numbers of homeless persons or refugees (etc.).

There is a large unmet household demand for new dwellings that are spacious, aesthetically attractive, and safe and reliable – as well as cheap. Some of the methods and materials used in manufacturing mobile homes, cabins, and lodges could be adopted by mainstream housebuilders. However, the typical caravan lags well behind the typical new fixed home in terms of size, space, and facilities (etc.).

8. Timber and steel frames

In regular fixed housebuilding, timber frames can cost around 15% more than their brick and block equivalents. However, they offer significant economic advantages in terms of savings on construction time and levels of thermal and sound insulation.

Timber frames are not prone to rot or catching fire provided they are properly treated, fitted correctly on site, and do not have too high an initial moisture content. Other factors being equal, the risk of rot actually diminishes with age because of the naturally decreasing moisture content of the timber.

Steel frames are nowadays widely used as an alternative to timber frames. By the late 20th century, steel frames had become significantly more price-competitive as a result of trade liberalization and increased cost-efficiency in the steel industry.

The use of load-bearing structural steel is still far more common in industrial-commercial construction than in housebuilding. However, there is growing appreciation in housebuilding of the speed advantages that steel frame use has over traditional brick and block methods. Something like a one-third reduction in total housebuilding time can be achieved by using steel frames. Faster production makes for significant savings on labour, interest, and other housebuilding costs.

The fact that houses can be roofed as soon as the frame has been erected means that internal trades are able to work in dry conditions soon after the delivery. They will also not be hindered by external brick or tile cladding work on the shell.

There will be much less risk of materials warping, shrinking, or otherwise deteriorating because of adverse weather conditions. The installation of fixtures, fittings, and decor will also usually be easier because of the higher precision and uniformity of dimensions of steel frame built houses.

Finally, fuel consumption and other household running costs will be reduced as a result of better insulation and the fact that surfaces and finishes will tend to require less maintenance work.

9. Concrete

Pre-cast concrete house frames offer much the same kind of advantages as timber and steel frames in speeding up construction, reducing costs, and improving quality and reliability.

Concrete in pre-cast or poured form has been used for building since Roman times. Many contemporary apartment blocks, hotels, and other multi-storey buildings are largely constructed out of concrete.In housebuilding, concrete is currently used to produce everything from house frames, through floors and foundations, to stairs, balconies, and bays.

Large concrete building structures do not have to be solid and heavy. They can often be prefabricated and assembled in relatively light and easy-to-handle parts or produced in tunnel rather than solid form. The great American inventor Thomas Edison devised a technique for mass-producing whole house shells quickly and cheaply on site by pouring wet concrete into large moulds and leaving it to set. This particular technique has not been widely adopted. However, builders often construct dwelling walls by simply installing lightweight wooden frames covered with wire netting and then filling them in with nozzle-sprayed wet concrete.

In practice, most modern housebuilding involves hybrid production technology or a mixture of different kinds of construction methods and materials – concrete and otherwise. Thus, concrete may be used exclusively for walls, floors, and some other structures. However, a combination of concrete and non-concrete materials will often be used for other elements – e.g. prefabricated and lined and insulated roof segments. Houses incorporating very large amounts of concrete may still have storey-height end wall timber panels, reinforced plaster board and partitioning, or traditional skins of bricks and tiles (etc.).

10. Plastic

In the 1980s, the GE Plastics subsidiary of the General Electric Corporation cooperated with a group of academics, housebuilders, cladding manufacturers, computing and electronics firms, and others to produce a model two-storey plastic house.

The dwelling had a timber frame, and incorporated a variety of traditional housebuilding materials as well as plastics. However, plastics made up 30% of the house’s composition. They were used in the foundations, floors, walls, roofs, doors, windows, and plumbing and electrical systems. The developers estimated that it would be possible to make 75% or more of a house in the future from plastic.

The plastics used were tough and heat resistant, but not fundamentally different from the kinds already in widespread use. They could currently be found in consumer products ranging from hamburger packs to car bodies and bumpers and in industry in the form of various specialist polymers and resins. All the plastic material used was capable of being recycled and used again for housing.

Other housebuilders had used cheap reusable material and advanced designs and production techniques to achieve considerable cost reductions (etc.). As said, the comparatively advanced system methods used by housebuilders in North America, Scandinavia, and elsewhere had already significantly reduced production times and labour and other costs.

However, the developers of the GE Plastics model house considered that the use of plastic as a basic building material would increase the scope for cost reductions much further.

Dwellings would be delivered faster and at lower prices to consumers; and higher quality (including safer) homes would be produced.

Typically, the various components of the house would be factory-made on a large-scale mass- or continuous process production basis. Not only could very large structures be quickly and easily fabricated, but the highly automated pressing machinery used would also enable a wide variety of shapes to be produced quickly and simply – literally by pressing a few buttons.

The fittings would also be put into the appropriate sections at the factory stage. Channels to accommodate services distribution would be moulded into floors and wall panels, and low-density plastic foam cores or other insulation materials enclosed in wall panels.

Finally, various kinds of finishing – including wood veneer and marble – would be pressed onto the surface of the plastic.

Having been produced, the various lightweight structural components of the house could be easily handled mechanically and quickly transported and assembled on-site.

Product repair and maintenance costs would be reduced by:

1. higher levels of technical quality control and assurance at the manufacturing stage;

2. the advanced integrated nature of the product and the production-assembly process, producing high levels of fit while allowing defective structural components to be easily taken out and replaced; and

3. the fact that repainting was unnecessary and the materials used were highly temperature-resistant, damp-repellent, and flame-resistant.

Home energy consumption would be reduced by building-in high standards of thermal insulation at the factory stage, and/or by adding solar panelling or inserting radiant panels into walls to facilitate house heating and cooling. The amount of light coming in through the plastic windows could also be automatically adjusted by means of switches and light sensitive liquid crystal polyester material sandwiched between ultra-violet resistant polycarbonate.

Householders could subsequently add new finishes or otherwise adapt dwellings to suit their own requirements. However, as in the case of other modern consumer durable products, lower real prices and continuing evolution/innovation would tend to result in households replacing rather than refurbishing old products.

To maintain and increase sales in a competitive market with a wide range of products for households to choose from, manufacturers generally put more resources into marketing: advertising, product design and styling, corporate brand and image development, and adding value to products in the form of special fixtures, fittings, and facilities (etc.).

In the case of the GE Plastics model house, this offered such things as infrared sensors and cameras built into external doors to produce photographs of visitors. Standard plastic floor bases allowed all the basic wiring and plumbing to be discreetly run throughout the house. in addition, the inhabitants could have:

· novel accoustic systems that piped music around the house through speakers mounted in the ceilings and under the floors;

· integrated heating, air conditioning, water heating and purifying, and air filtering and humidifying systems;and

· wall panels that could be moved around the house and linked into the house’s support systems to enable more or less any space to be adapted for particular work, recreational, or other purposes.

11. Marketing innovative housing products and production technologies

In order to be successfully marketed, new homes of all kind – technologically innovative as well as traditionalistic – have to satisfy household buyers in terms of price and value-for-money, location, and convenience of access.

Other factors being equal, larger sized housing with more space and facilities is more attractive and commands higher prices than smaller (etc.). However, high technical-production qualities and aesthetic appeal can offset the disadvantages of smaller space and facilities (etc.)

Different households attach more importance to some features than others when choosing new homes. Some households are especially attracted by cheapness or convenience for work. Others will be prepared to pay much more for rural locations, high aesthetic quality and technical-product standards, or generous size, space, and facilities.

Detached houses and bungalows tend to be the most sought after and expensive types of dwelling.

Detachment was a major factor in the relative popularity of the prefabs built in Britain in the post-Second World War period. Detachment is a common feature of innovative new housing generally. Such housing could have a significant all round competitive edge over traditional dwellings if detachment was combined with cheapness, flexibility, and good location – and if the high technical-product standards and low repair, maintenance, and running costs associated with modern consumer durable products generally were combined with high aesthetic quality.

Bringing the production of houses into line with that of other modern industrial consumer durables would necessarily involve changes in marketing methods.

Advertising would become more important and sophisticated. Both suppliers and consumers would be more aware and quicker to adapt to changes in the marketplace.

In addition, traditional architects would be replaced by product designers closely integrated with production engineering and other functions. Consumers would increasingly make their initial product selections and buying decisions from digital and printed catalogues. There would still be room for bespoke technical specifications and individualistic styling. However, basic technical-production parameters and product quality and reliability would now be largely built-in and assured at the factory stage. Like other durable consumer goods manufacturers, housebuilders would issue standard technical manuals for the professional production assembly, repair, and maintenance of their products.

If the general development pattern of consumer durables industries was followed, the factory-based mechanized mass production of housing – coupled with strong national and international pressure from competitors and customers – would raise the average technical quality (performance, reliability) of products, reduce costs and prices, and stimulate further innovation.

Housing product differentiation would take several forms. In addition to various strongly competing national and international corporate brands there would be structurally-functionally different products for different sub-markets or classes of consumer and a significant amount of geographical market segmentation.

There could be a wide range of prices for different levels of product sophistication. The homes on offer might range from simple box-like dwellings at one end of the scale to very high-tech machine-like structures at the other. Some households would be satisfied with cheap basic accommodation that was clean, secure, and comfortable. Others would demand homes that incorporated various advanced special features (etc.).

Low heating and other running costs could be a major selling point of technologically innovative homes that were insulated to a very high standard and/or allowed the occupants to alter internal space by moving walls or raising and lowering floors and ceilings. There could be a sizeable demand for dwellings that were capable of being adapted in line with changing household sizes and requirements. Family households might be especially keen on dwellings that enabled a variety of activities to take place at the same time without cross-interference.

Within companies, the more mechanized factory production of houses using new materials would tend to have the same kind of beneficial business-economic effects as mechanization/automation in other manufacturing industries.

Productivity would be enhanced. Concentrating manufacturing at particular locations and realizing economies of scale would reduce production costs. In addition to saving labour, the pre-engineering of components and automation of the production process would reduce expensive faults and delays in building.

Many modern industrial materials have substantial technical, commercial, and design advantages over their traditional counterparts. For example, steel, plastic, and aluminium are:

  • comparatively cheap, readily available, and easily re-cycled;
  • relatively strong, reliable, and predictable in performance;
  • more malleable than traditional materials such as wood, stone, or brick; and
  • with appropriate finishing or in their natural state, capable of being highly pleasing aesthetically.

Flexibility, speed, and certainty are important to industrial-commercial suppliers generally.

In the case of housebuilding, it is highly beneficial if building materials and components, entire dwelling shells, factory-built rooms and other modules, and flat-pack units for DIY construction (etc.) are produced and delivered comparatively quickly, more or less as and when required, and on a firm price basis. This will lower inventory costs and reduce business-financial risks and uncertainties all round.

High flexibility is inherent in modular production and consumption. In the case of housing, the products are not constructed and bought and sold in their entirety but by the individual room or other component part. Large dwelling complexes might be built up piece-by-piece gradually over time. Residential properties might also be reduced in size or otherwise adapted in shape and facilities in line with changes in the size, incomes, and requirements or tastes of the households concerned.

Meanwhile, there may be significant business-financial advantages in the separation of the supply and consumption of housing from that of land.

Traditionally in housing, two goods are jointly supplied and consumed: i.e., the dwellings and the land on which they stand. However, when houses are prefabricated in factories, dwellings and land are more likely to have different sources. The builders will often just transport dwelling structures to where they are required for fitting or installation on sites already prepared and serviced by the owners. The finished dwellings might even be dismantled and moved elsewhere at a later date.

This separation or differentiation of the two major goods can significantly enhance flexibility and efficiency in management, purchasing, and marketing. The cost of land banks is cut, and exposure to land price fluctuations and other risks reduced.

As said, with production mechanization/automation the marketing of homes by firms would tend to come into line with that of other manufactured consumer durables.

There would tend to be much more international as well as national advertising and buying and selling of products. Enhanced customer awareness and stronger competition among producers would make for cheaper and generally better value-for-money dwellings. Order-to-delivery times would tend to be shortened, and households given a wide range of dwellings with different technical specifications, appearance, and size, shape, and facilities to choose from.

All these and other advantages of new types of housing product, material, and production technology might be stressed in advertising to household and business customers.

12. Summary and conclusions

The quest for an innovative high quality low cost housing model with sustained mass-market appeal has been going on for a long time.

The single-storey prefabs mass-produced from aluminium and other materials after the Second World War in Britain were still relatively popular with their occupants several decades later. These were detached dwellings and often constituted a significant general improvement on the old terraced houses in run-down urban areas that they replaced. But the prefabs were not built to last long and were manifestly inferior to standard modern brick and block built houses in terms of size, space, and facilities (etc.).

In the United States and elsewhere, lightweight metal flat-pack houses have also been designed for mass production along the lines of automobile and aircraft bodies. However, production of such housing to date has only been on a limited (often just a pilot or experimental) basis. Meanwhile, the poor quality concrete system built tower blocks built in Britain in the 1960s fell well short of the requirements of affluent modern family households.

Self-building homes along conventional lines or using assembly kits made from traditional materials such as timber has not been significantly cheaper than buying already-built houses on the market.

Temporary mobile homes, cabins, and lodges tend to be cheap. But most of these units are significantly smaller and inferior in other respects to the standard modern fixed house. Meanwhile, factory-made and fitted-out individual room units or pods of the kind used in modern hotel building and radical remodels of old houses have yet to be adopted in the mainstream housebuilding industry and new homes market.

The continuous-process production of housing units is nowadays possible in large automated plants using such materials as heat-formed plastic, aluminium, newer high-tech alloys, ceramics, silicon, carbon fibre, glass fibre, chemically treated wood, flax, straw, other plant fibres, and bio-chemical composites.

Many analysts regard this technology as highly promising for the development of radically new types of low-cost housing structure in the future.

Plastic is already widely used in housebuilding (as it is in the production of automobiles, aircraft, boats, and other large comparable durable goods). Housebuilders use plastic in the form of transparent polycarbonate glass substitute for glazing (especially in conservatories, greenhouses, car ports, door panels, and porches). Butyl and corrugated PVC is used for roofing, and plastic planking and cladding for fascias, sofit, and bargeboards. Finally, plastic is employed extensively in window frames, fencing materials, gutters, drainpipes, and plumbing systems.

Plastic and similar materials have a number of major advantages over brick, concrete, timber, and metal in housebuilding and re-modelling.

The materials are synthesized from commonplace ingredients and are relatively cheap. They and the structures and components made from them also tend to be light and easily transportable. New materials, components, and structures made from chemically treated plant fibre are exceptionally strong, with an impact resistance even greater than tough glass-reinforced plastic and carbon fibre products.

Producing large objects from them on an automated continuous-process basis through heat forming or injection moulding is a well-established technology. Technical-product specification change is a comparatively simple automated procedure.

Significant savings in time and labour and other costs of building on-site are also possible through the use of these materials. No advanced specialist skills or equipment are required to work, shape, assemble, and fix the pre-fabricated structures and components concerned. The latter can be relatively easily planed, drilled, nailed, sawed, glued, and painted.

The materials and structures made from them tend to be comparatively durable, and free from many of the warping, splitting, rotting, rusting, and pitting and general decomposition problems of their traditional counterparts. Thus, their use saves money on maintenance, repairs, and replacements.

Finally, good overall appearance or aesthetic appeal can usually be achieved by painting or otherwise finishing-off structures in attractive colours, grains, and textures that harmonize with their surroundings.

However, the automated continuous process technical-production system is radically different from that of traditional labour intensive small-batch housebuilding. The capital required to set up dedicated facilities for mass manufacturing plastic (etc.) dwellings would also be considerable. Thus, it is likely that firms outside the industry rather than existing conventional housebuilders would primarily develop the technology.


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Further reading from Industrial Systems Research:

Housebuilding & the New Homes Market: A Survey 

Thumbnail Housebuilding

Technological Development in Industry: A Business-Economic Survey & Analysis

  Thumbnail Tech Dev

ISR Publications Catalogue 

 Hardcover picture1


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