House out of a carton

Prefabricated homes, which can be put together fast, are catching on in the West. Will they find acceptance in this part of the world? RENU RAMANATH finds out.

HOUSES OUT of a carton? Homes assembled from parts neatly packed and tucked into a truck, fresh from the factory? Houses that could be pulled down, transported and put up anywhere you want?

All these might sound outlandish for the Malayalee who associates a `home' with attributes such as `solidity' and `permanence.' A home is a place where you `settle down.' A house is an asset for future generations. And, a home is a place that can offer the ultimate security.

So, will the concept of modular or prefabricated homes ever find even a niche in the Malayali mindset? "Yes," says builders and architects in one voice. "The concept of modular homes will take some time to find social acceptance here," says Lalichan Zacharias, chairman, Indian Institute of Architects (IIA), Cochin chapter.

"But, things will come to such a pass that people will find modular homes much attractive sooner," says the city-based architect Sebastian Jose. "Modular homes can become acceptable, especially for the common people with a limited budget who desire a house with all modern amenities," points out Venugopal, president, Kerala Builders Forum (KBF).

Modular or prefabricated houses have become accepted in the West, especially in the U.S. Initially an extension of the mobile or trailer homes of the 1920s and 1930s, the modular or prefab houses have now become much more advanced technically and aesthetically. These structures are covered by the building rules almost all over the U.S. However, even though housing continues to be a crucial issue in India, the concept of modular or prefab houses that could be assembled on site from pre-fabricated components has not yet caught upon here. In our community, the house still needs to be a structure that offers the ultimate security, financial and physical. At the same time, prefabricated houses could offer a ready answer to our pressing problem of housing, according to the experts.

Something like a first step in this direction has been taken by the IIA recently when it came up with the idea of standardising construction products. The IIA, working in association with the Confederation of Construction Products and Services (CCPS), is starting with doors and windows.

Doors and windows have been identified as the products in construction sector that are ready for standardisation. Already pre-fabricated doors and windows have started to become available, even though there has been no standardisation of their dimensions. With carpentry work accounting for a good part of the construction costs, any kind of respite is a welcome change for the builders. Next in line are bathrooms. Standardising bathroom products is also comparatively easier since many parts already arrive in modules in the local market.

The shower cubicles already available here are proving to be popular, though they are a bit highly priced. Mr. Jose points out that toilets and bathrooms in modules are available in countries such as Japan. Though modular kitchens have started making inroads into Indian homes, these are only just a small segment of the building modules market, Mr. Jose says.

However, as Mr. Zacharias points out, thorough research and development will have to be done before any steps are taken towards introducing the concept of completely prefabricated housing in Kerala. "The material and building technology used at present in other countries are not suitable for our climate," he says.

"Also, their concept of a house, security, etc. are quite different from ours." Mr. Zacharias contends that the concept of modular construction could be applied to multi-storeyed apartment complexes here at first. That way, people will not have much of a problem accepting the pre-made products as they have already opted to live in a complex of uniform-looking apartments.

The standardisation of building components might prove to be the biggest blessing for the construction segment, since it would help avoid the wastage generated during the work.

Often, people have to cut away the extra parts from sheets of glass, or flooring tiles have to be cut in half to fill up a room. "Standardisation is a fantastic idea," say Mr. Venugopal. "Especially where apartments are concerned. Even for individual homes, costs could be brought down considerably. Things will become easier. But, the problem is, how long it would all take."

Mr. Zacharias also points out that modular construction is most suitable for apartments at present. Panel slabs of concrete could be used for the multi-storeyed buildings.

Mr. Venugopal is of the opinion that any steps in standardisation should be taken only through a process of close interaction between all the concerned parties in the construction segment like the builders, architects and structural engineers.

Mr. Zacharias says that the whole idea is only at a conceptual stage at present. He agrees that any final steps could be taken only after holding rounds of comprehensive discussions among the manufacturers, builders, architects and all others involved in the sector. The Cochin chapter of the IIA has already started the compilation of a digital data bank that comprehensively covers the whole segment of construction-related products, according to Mr. Zacharias. The databank will be located at the new office of the IIA, Kochi chapter now under construction. The companies can use an online updating facility for the data, including the prices and details of their products on a daily basis. The databank will be accessible to the public, says Mr. Zacharias.

Assembly homes

SO, WHAT are modular, manufactured and site-built houses?

Though almost foreign to our building terminology, sooner or later, these terms are bound to become part of our lexicon also, especially going by what the building industry experts say. The days are not far when aspiring house-owners will be asked by the architect or builder whether they want their homes modular, manufactured or site-built.

This is what these terms mean.

While site-built homes are built entirely on the building site, modular homes are built in sections at a factory. These sections are transported to the building site on truck beds and then, assembled, most probably by local contractors. Manufactured homes, on the other hand, are built on a non-removable steel chassis and then, transported to the site on their own wheels, which will be removed once the structure reaches the site. A new version of the old American trailer home, in fact. Modular homes are in fact, offshoots of the trailer home, an American phenomenon that came into existence during the 1950s.

Initially considered as camping houses, the post-Second World War era saw more and more people, especially the war veterans short of land and resources, taking to the trailer homes. In the early 1950s, mobile homes began to be manufactured and marketed as an option of inexpensive housing. Sometimes, the mobile homes were even permanently installed over masonry foundations.

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