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Fab prefabs, flatpack design and sustainable luxury

From the Cindarella of buildings to the most forward thinking frontier of architecture, prefab homes are the latest desire of those who search for luxury in interiors. Here is why

(download here the PDF of the article published on DCasa)

This is what could happen to you when entering one of the Huf Haus offices. One: to discover that a wooden house does not necessarily need to look like a mountain refuge. Two: to realize that in order to build a super moder and ecological one – designed exactly as you please – you need less than six months. Three (but this is not a guarantee): to meet one of the many Hollywood stars who have selected this German brand, leader in the development of prefab luxury homes, to build the house of their dreams.

Un prefabbricato di Huf Haus, con interni di B&B Italia

The times in which the word “prefabricated”, especially in Italy, evoked images of precarious homes, second-choice solutions, seem very far away. Today the fab prefabs – the buildings made with pre-built wooden modules and then assembled in situ – are the last frontier of luxury 2.0: sustainable, customizable, high tech and strictly “design”. Among the best known supporters of the concept of the green house that can be assembled are Anjelica Huston, James Franco and Moby (authors of Kithaus’s interiors in LA for Airbnb), the inevitable Brad Pitt (who produced and put on sale with his Make It Right Foundation a zero-impact prefab in Joshua Tree National Park) and finally the duo Zaha Hadid + the singer Pharrell Williams who would be planning their pre-fab. Without forgetting Philippe Starck. But obviously not only the VIPs who love kit homes: the numbers speak of an increasingly widespread phenomenon.

In Italy, for example (a country traditionally suspicious of wooden houses), the market share went from 0.5% in 2008 to 6% in 2013, with estimates for 2015 that are around + 15% (source: Sole24Ore). What is the reason for this success built in a quiet and now gradually growing? «First of all there is a change in people’s mentality, a greater sensitivity to quality and the environment», explains Huf Haus’s design manager Peter Huf, as he walks through the big house he created in Weybridge, near London. Although completely made of wood and built with the typical alpine technique of the fachwerk (the interlocking frame), it is difficult to think of a less traditional dwelling than this one, with its huge glazed openings, the wide and bright spaces and the elegant furnishings: all Italian, labeled B & B Italia.

«Producing the elements of the dwelling in a controlled space, in the factory, means ensuring the perfection of the finished product. An essential thing, for example, regarding the thermal insulation layer of the panels», explains Huf. The result is a house that does not use gas or diesel but it heats and refreshes thanks to an innovative hybrid system, which uses the sun’s energy stored in the air and the energy released by a compressed coolant. And it achieves energy independence thanks to photovoltaic panels.

With a price that is around one and a half million euros, a property like that of Weybridge (three thousand square meters totally customizable) certainly can not be defined as cheap. But everything is relative. With the same result in terms of performance and quality of the building, according to Huf, a pre-built house costs 40% less than a traditional one (and is built in half the time). Who asks for one, therefore, is not so much attracted by the possibility of having a low cost home as much as from living in a high quality space for a fair price.


Una villa prefabbricata, progetto di Jacopo Mascheroni

«It is more and more of young people», says Jacopo Mascheroni, author of numerous valuable kit houses in Italy. «Ecologically very polite, they want self-sufficient houses that do not use gas or other pollutants. And they appreciate the clear price, without surprises, which is always guaranteed with a turnkey construction». According Mascheroni, this is not a trend but an evolution that could change the face of building in Italy. «The future is increasingly linked to kits that now have a much higher degree of customization than building sites», he says. «The systems will soon be installed in the walls, so that the intervention of plumbers and electricians in situ is reduced to a minimum. Soon – when all construction work will be done in the workshop – we will have homes not only recyclable (like today’s prefabricated) but also removable and moveable, repositionable in another place. The companies that still design the yards in a traditional way – that is, as places of production and not just assembly – and do not equip themselves for the growing demand for prefabricated modules will not survive this change that is epochal because it does not start from a change in taste but mentality, required not only by architects but also and above all by commissioning ».

According to Emanuele Orsini, president of Assolegno, also the earthquake in L’Aquila in 2009 helped to build the present success of prefabricated wooden buildings: «They have resisted the earthquake much better than all the others», he says. Adding that «the introduction of X-Lam wood panels», a system of crossed and glued layers of varying thickness and dimensions – used in Italy in the last few years – which allows the construction of very tall buildings, has played a fundamental role.

And it is precisely in the metropolis where we are witnessing the most avant-garde experiments in the field of prefabricated buildings. In Amsterdam, for example, where Statistics Nederland predicts a surge in the demand for single-family flatpack homes by 2020,  disassembled and transportable mono-dwellings have been created (the Heijmans manufacturer calls them “freelance houses”). In London, however, we look at the prefab as a possible answer to the problem of high water. In fact, Carl Turner Architects has just put online for free the technical specifications of its Floating House (see main picture), a floating anti-flood prefabricated in wood, fiberglass and photovoltaic panels designed to be made as a do-it-yourself object or with the support of suppliers. While Popup House of Multiplod is depopulated in France: a passive house (with low costs) that is built in 4 days using modules (patented) consisting of blocks of expanded polystyrene assembled with panels in Laminate Veneer Lumber (LVL), a compound of thin layers of wood.


Casa flat-pack iin Muji a Tokyo

In this panorama, Italy is definitely very well positioned. At the last Solar Decathlon, the international competition reserved for the Faculty of Architecture to build the house of the future, Roma Tre University won the gold medal with the prefabricated social housing project Rhome for DenCity realized in collaboration with the South Tyrolean Rubner Haus (author, among other things, of the first resort in Europe to receive the CasaClima certificate, two towers for seven floors above ground near Venice). His strengths? Metal pipes filled with sand in the interspaces of the wooden walls (which Rubner has now transformed into a product), systems in a single block, and a “digital dashboard” to customize the house.

And so, while the prefabricated luxury arrives at the Hamptons (with Cocoon9 by Christopher Burch, former husband of the designer Tory), according to one of the architects of the Decathlon, Gabriele Bellingeri, you are building a more human-scale future even for those who do not has millions to spend. «Tomorrow’s house will not be a spaceship, guided by unknown technologies”, he says, “but economic, built with natural and sustainable materials, energy efficient, luminous and able to communicate with the inhabitants».


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