Gerard Heumann

Can beauty and efficiency meet?

Israel should add large-scale, prefabricated, pre-finished construction to its toolkit for addressing the housing crisis
ADDP's Avenue South Residence, Singapore
ADDP's Avenue South Residence, Singapore

While building materials have changed over time, many aspects of the construction process have remained the same for hundreds of years. Never mentioned in the debates over our housing crisis is that modular prefabricated industrialized housing can speed up construction time considerably and produce savings of as much as 15 percent.

As is true for all buildings, buildings of this type must be of human scale, appropriate and respectful of their existing environmental context. But industrialized housing has an additional and critically important requirement: built off-site, mainly in an indoor protected factory environment, the elements are transported to the building site and hoisted into place by cranes.

At the same time, in contradistinction to the old notion of the soulless and cookie-cutter building we associate with buildings of this type, these structures must never have an industrial character. Essential is that their design have the right measure of organized, organic and coherent complexity in order to enable and ensure human identification.

Provided the above requirements have been met, important benefits are made possible. With far less physical elements on-site, community and neighborhood disruption, such as noise, air pollution and traffic problems, can be alleviated. Safety for construction teams would be improved and on-site manpower reduced. There would be fewer changes during the course of construction, saving time. Economies of scale can become significant.

Worldwide, even today, it is difficult to find successful examples of this type. Recent examples of multistory residential buildings made up of prefabricated home units can be found in Vancouver, Canada and London, but fail to meet our criteria, as the necessary variety and architectural design of quality are sorely lacking. Low buildings stand adjacent to the squat and dull tower in London, which is sure to cast huge shadows on its neighbors; the housing in Vancouver is poorly designed.

Better examples are the 56-story twin towers,”Avenue South Residence”, slated to be the world’s tallest prefabricated buildings when completed in Singapore. Eighty percent of each prefabricated and pre-finished module was created off-site requiring only Lego-like, on-site assembly. Lush sky terraces, balconies and sun-shading screens integrated into their facades help to break up their building volume.

And what of Israel, “the Start-Up Nation?” While there have been several examples of prefab housing built in the eighties, all of them no more than two stories in height, they were singularly unsuccessful and dull. Government plans to encourage prefabricated modular building sponsored by the Ministry of Housing and Construction from time to time, granting bonuses to builders, have failed. And too, the mentality of developers and builders here is extremely conservative, labor relatively cheap, our planning and building bureaucracy formidable. As of today, an industry capable of building large-scale prefabricated and prefinished home unit modules here doesn’t exist.

Israel must look into this option and should start by sending a delegation made up of government officials, industrialists, entrepreneurs, builders and architects to Singapore to study how they succeeded.

About the Author
Gerard Heumann is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.
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