The return of the prefab - but this time it's cool

Low-paid workers, first-time buyers and young families currently face a dearth of affordable housing. But Britain has faced - and solved - this problem before. And now the postwar prefab is back - with a stylish makeover.

Low-paid workers, first-time buyers and young families currently face a dearth of affordable housing in the UK. The Daily Express calls the situation a "crisis". Yet no one seems to be able to think of a reasonable solution. However, there is one. This is a problem Britain has faced, and solved, before. Between 1939 and 1945 around 420,000 houses were destroyed or damaged beyond repair in air raids. The Government's answer to the thousands of families made homeless, plus a large number of newly wed wartime couples, was the permanent prefabricated house.

Post-war prefabs, although godsends to homeless families, were humble, drab places a hard image to shake off. But there is nothing tacky or samey about today's sleek, precision-engineered, custom-designed flatpack houses, says Helen Brown in The Independent. Modern prefabs are "cool". More than £1.6bn worth of prefabs were sold in Britain last year, and according to a study by the Future Laboratory, the market is expanding at around 30% each year. Today's prefabs range from the very basic, caravan-style costing as little as £14,000 to the two-storied, or the ready-furnished. At the top end, hi-tech bolt-on flats and luxury penthouses can cost up to £2.5m.

Earlier this year, Swedish furniture chain Ikea announced plans to sell flat-pack homes called BoKloks live-smart' in Britain. The firm has been inundated with enquiries ever since, and is currently finalising negotiations with property groups and councils to build in Brighton, Edinburgh, Gateshead, Glasgow, the New Forest and Newcastle. Glasgow City Council has approved a "pioneering scheme", under which Drumchapel in Glasgow will see a £100m rebirth as Scotland's first "garden suburb", says Jim McBeth in The Scotsman with 1,200 private homes, ranging from small flats to £250,000 town houses. "They are high quality, simple to construct, affordable and encompass the latest technology," a project spokesman told the newspaper. They are also a superb quick-fix answer for the 124 acres that make up eight vacant sites in the area.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

It seems the Drumchapel "village" is to become the first of many. Ikea plans to build blocks of flats aimed at people earning from as little as £15,000 a year plans that could win over John Prescott, who has called for millions of new homes to be built in England. Some proposals would see as many as 1.2 million new homes in the southeast by 2021, and others explore the notion of banning second homes in some areas to ease rural house prices. The demand for cheap, easily built housing is here to stay, says Robert Winnett in The Sunday Times, and that means prefabs are too.

Prefab houses are typically much cheaper than a new build, and can be put up in a matter of days complete with wiring and plumbing. There is only one major stumbling block if you fancy putting one up yourself: you'll have to find and buy suitable land, says Graham Hiscott in the Daily Express. Once you are over that hurdle, prefabs are "pretty fab" to live in, says Adam Jacques in The Independent. They provide a "cheap slice of modernist life", and there are plenty of types to choose from. WeberHaus (00 49 7853 83 487) currently sell wooden-clad, two-storey homes with floor-to-ceiling windows on all four sides, sporting rooftop solar panels and a rain-water recoverer, all for £87,000. The two-bedroom house has some fantastic fittings, and is far from budget accommodation. Alternatively, the 1,000 sq ft m-house (pronounced mouse') is a contemporary bungalow that comes fully furnished (subject to customisation). It arrives at your plot of land in two pieces, and is assembled and ready to move in the same day. The 8ft high "marvel" will set you back £135,000, including delivery (07779-666501 / 01332-864404).

First Penthouse have come up with an alternative, rather glamorous, kind of prefab. They will bolt your new pad on to the rooftop of your existing house, providing a custom-made penthouse or office space for your home, thatcan be erected in one day (020-7584 9894). The major problem with this type of prefab is planning permission Kensington & Chelsea council, for example, always say no.

But planning permission isn't a problem for The Retreat a graceful woodenunit aimed at the holiday home market. Architects Buckley Gray Yeoman designed The Retreat for holidaymakers and it technically conforms to the legal definition of a caravan. Although the elegant model, with its oak flooring and wool carpets, might be out of place in a traditional caravan park, says architect Richard Buckley, there are areas currently being developed in Norfolk, Devon and Ireland for the Retreats. The H-shaped homes start at £37,500 for two bedrooms (020-7729 2889).

Emma Thelwell

Emma is a former digital journalist with more than 15 years of experience in national news in the UK and overseas. She was an assistant editor at MoneyWeek, covering property, funds, alternative investments and the share tips pages, then Emma moved on to The Daily Telegraph, first as a personal finance reporter and then as a business reporter. 

Emma also worked as a finance correspondent for Ninemsn (Australia’s Channel 9 online) in Sydney, Australia for just over a year, and since then Emma has worked at Channel 4 News as a reporter and producer, and she spent more than 4 years at BBC online. At present Emma is a senior manager for content and thought leadership at PwC.