REVIEW: If you had to guess what a prefabricated house would look like, you’d never come up with this one in a thousand years. Not even a vision of a Grand Designs version could conjure up this picture, and how wonderful is that?
This show started out pedantic, even ho-hum. There goes presenter Kevin McCloud pretending to be a postie (some obscure reference to delivering houses), and there’s all that footage of prefabricated stuff. None of that prepared us for this house.
We were even less prepared after seeing the crappy ‘40s bungalow the couple, Kate and Rob were living in. The house was one of the original post-war prefabricated jobs only meant to last 10 years. As McCloud rightly says, it’s a shack. There are old wasp nests on the inside, and ivy growing through.
But there’s a sad twist to the tale. The house and associated hop farm in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent belonged to Rob’s father, till the banks foreclosed on his mortgage. And not being able to have children, the couple are pouring their “all” into this new build.
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This history makes this Grand Designs house even more special. Rather than take over the family farm, as planned, Rob is in a warehouse making flooring, while Kate is training to be a paddleboard instructor.
They have an inheritance: “I think the time has come, for a new beginning,” says Rob. And their plan is a custom-prefabricated house – and by that they mean very bespoke, which seems a little at odds with the idea of prefabrication and economy through scale. But that’s what they’re doing – getting the house built inside a factory, so it will only take a couple of days to put it all up on site. Which makes sense considering the weather, travel and carbon miles.
The house will be modular, comprising six cuboid modules, four on the ground floor and two on the upper level, with lots of Corten steel (with a rusted orange exterior) and larch. The top floor will be positioned on an angle and cantilevered to maximise the sunshine. Which doesn’t exactly sound straightforward.
“Will it be a processed pastoral paradise or a steel-clad sore thumb?,” McCloud ponders.
The total budget for the build, including demolition of the asbestos-clad, paper-thin shack is £350,000 (NZ$690,000).
The house was designed by the prefab factory’s owner, even though they usually build cookie-cutter social housing units. The aim is 12 days to build each module. Delays are measured in minutes, rather than days. (Contrast that to last week’s build.)
First major hitch: The neighbours have withdrawn permission they had granted for the couple to use their field to bring the house across – it’s the only way in. But eventually they get it sorted – the neighbour just wanted reassurance, oh, and money. He had a “wobble”, and got concerned about damage and chaos that might ensue. So that £5000 came out of Rob’s pension.
‘Modernise or die’
McCloud loves watching the build. It’s millimetre perfect; everything is “square”, and there’s no mud. Surely the way of the future. “Modernise or die,” consultant Mark Farmer says. Along with factory-level quality, you get a much smaller carbon footprint. For every four houses built the traditional way, the equivalent of one whole house goes in the skip. It seems a no-brainer.
Their house is finished in six weeks, albeit in boxes. Kate is in tears (happiness) viewing it in the factory. And then the trucks arrive on site. Access is tight between the hedges, and overhead branches. The first module gets wedged under an oak tree, but is soon freed.
Within 24 hours of the first module arriving, the house is all joined up. The modules are all connected, and the couple gets their first walk through. It’s all fitted out – door and window joinery, kitchen, bathrooms. Amazing.
There’s still a little work to do, mind you. The crew needs to add the cladding, additional insulation and stairs, connect the plumbing and decorate. But much of that is modular, too, and speedy.
The view from the top floor and deck, over the former family farm and pear orchard, is fabulous. McCloud is stunned: “I am now officially jealous,” he says. Same.
It’s extra special for Kate and Rob, too, and it’s the notion of “home”. “I’ve always wanted to build Kate a house, to see the smile on her face, and how excited she gets,” says Rob, tearfully.
‘Not being able to have children… this is so much of us together’
Kate sums it up beautifully: “Not being able to have children… to be able to create this, which is just so much of us together, is different, but important. I’ve lived here since I was three. This is just home.”
Spring arrives, and with it the grand reveal. McCloud strolls up to the house through the orchards and lane. And there, hidden within the new growth is the house, with landscaping all completed.
And it’s astonishing – one of the best projects we have seen. The angled upper floor not only transforms the aesthetic, but captures all the sunlight and views. And the Corten-clad chimney is a perfect balance at one side. McCloud loves it, but seems to think you can tell it’s prefabricated (we can’t), although he does say there’s no sense of any compromise.
The crisply detailed interior reflects top-notch finishing – they have even reused some of the glass that was in the internal doors of the old house, for nostalgia. “We wanted to carry [over] as much as we could,” Rob says.
The ground floor boasts the extra-large open-plan living area, a study, large guest bedroom, bathroom, utility room and hallway. While the upper level is their bedroom retreat, with a wonderful slipper bath in the bedroom, positioned for the view.
“We consider ourselves terribly lucky,” says Rob. “We just love living here.” Who wouldn’t?
‘This house comes with a QR code’
We discover there’s high-tech stuff in this build, including an embedded QR code that links to a website and pdfs that can be updated at any stage. All the specs, materials, as-built drawings, warranties and user guides are there.
And the final cost? They added a few extras, including a copper door and improved fire safety, so the build crept up to £370,000 (NZ$732,000).
“Conventionally, we couldn’t have built this,” Kate says. And that pretty much sums this up. Let’s see more of this down under please, because building costs here in New Zealand outstrip pretty much every other country, and compared to the UK, we may as well be building on the moon.