Prefabrication. Persona non grata
The reception of the prefabrication today is different in various European countries due to their history. In countries that after war had to go a long way to reach democratic government, it is associated with a political system – communism – when the technology reached the peak of its popularity. Using the technology ideologically for constructing a new society was the reason of the rejection of the technology by eastern countries and ceasing to develop it after the fall of the communism.
The idea of prefabricated elements for building objects goes back to ancient times. Created from lime mortar and volcanic ash (pulvis puteolanus), “opus ceamenticuim” – the Ancient “concrete” – was used for the production of constructions and prefabricated elements for building infrastructure – tunnels, aqueducts, fortresses, harbours, breakwaters, roads or conduits. The ready-made elements designed for the construction of temples were transported e.g. from Rome to colonies in Africa, as we learn from the letters of Pliny the Younger.
For some, the beginnings of the prefabrication date back to the construction of the first fully-prefabricated object – The Crystal Palace, which was erected in Hyde Park in London for the Great Exhibition in 1851. Joseph Paxton designed a building which consisted of cast iron and glass prefabricates. For its construction, 293 665 glass plates and more than 4500 tonnes of iron were used.
Others date the beginnings of prefabrication back to the creation of ferroconcrete – i.e. patenting by a French gardener Joseph Monier (1823-1906). In 1849, he used iron nets for reinforcement of concrete flower pots used in Versaille gardens. In 1867, he patented the technology of producing ferroconcrete baskets, and within the next years – also pipes (1868), plates (1869), arch bridge arcades (1873), beams – rail bases (1877) and ceilings (1880-1883). However, the greatest development of the idea of prefabrication falls after 1914, when Le Corbusier designed Dom-ino house, which changes the approach towards architecture.
A city landscape without any block districts? Hard to imagine
“Low blocks without an elevator mean discomfort in the form of insufficient distance between the buildings, too little sunlight, little green areas and unadapted terrain surrounding the building. On the other hand, skyscrapers have much better ventillation, are more lightened and distanced from one another; they assume the construction of biggest possible parks, which are useful for children wanting to satisfy their need of playing and making noise. […]Their benefits are invaluable in healthy cities”.
Scope of Total Architecture – Walter Gropius
Today it is hard to imagine a city landscape without any block districts. One of the terms that comes to my mind as I think of block district is ‘prefabrication’. It was prefabrication that allowed for quick and at least partial satisfaction of the housing needs in post-war Europe, and did not end with the fall of modernism.
“In Western European countries, where prefabricated housing areas are not associated with political system, but with modernism and with an attempt to solve the housing problems of quickly developing cities, prefabrication is still in much use and liked“.
The desire of a healthy city
The course of development taken by the post-war Europe by adopting the Athens Charter was supposed to be the solution to ongoing housing problems. The desire of a healthy city – high, sun-lit buildings soaked in greenery – raised plenty of emotion, even stronger if one witnessed living conditions hard to imagine for a modern day person.
The war damage and shortage of flats was the reason people were trying to find an effective and radical tool that might change the fate of the society. The tool was prefabrication. It specifically served to meet the postulates and visions of the modernists. The growth of interest in concrete and prefabrication itself, copying solutions and elements allowed for building e.g. Cite’ de la muette (1931-34 – E. Beaudouin, M. Lods, E. Mopin, V. Bodiansky), Unite D’Habitation (1946-52 – Le Corbusier) or Habitat 67 (1967 – M. Safdie), where prefabricated elements did not include only wall or ceiling elements but entire spatial forms – concrete modules. In urbanism, prefabrication will find its beginnings in the vision of Le Corbusier in Contemporary city (1922), Vertical City by L. Hilberseimer (1927-35) or the considerations of W. Gropius – „Low, Mid- or High-rise Building?” for Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (Brussels, 1930).
The reception of the prefabrication itself is different in various European countries due to their history. In countries that after war had to go a long way to reach democratic government, it is associated with a political system – communism – when the technology reached the peak of its popularity. Using the technology ideologically for constructing a new society, with a new lifestyle, beliefs, aims and goals, at the same time unified, controlled by the state, where every citizen was never treated as an individual being, was the reason of the rejection of the technology by eastern countries and ceasing to develop it after the fall of the communism.
In Western European countries, where prefabricated housing areas are not associated with political system, but with modernism and with an attempt to solve the housing problems of quickly developing cities, prefabrication is still in much use and liked, for example in Scandinavia, the construction of almost 80% of the buildings use the prefabricated technology due to the possibility of installing elements irrespective of the weather. In those countries, the advantages and the possibilities given by prefabrication are not blurred by social or historical aspects.
Poles can(not) do it
It is usually thought that every Pole is able to repair or construct everything on their own. Lack of public trust and trust to other people is the reason why the technologies that are popular in Polish construction are those that do not require much knowledge in execution and part of the work might be done on one’s own. The tradition of brick-layed walls, the habit of using traditional technology, an inborn archetype of a house – this all has an impact on the popularity of traditional materials. Lack of knowledge about the technology, lack of trust to subcontractors and the image of prefabrication in PRL times discouraged the Poles from experimenting and developing prefabrication.
The development of prefabrication in multi-family buildings falls on the post-war period and is related to the fixing war damages and housing shortage. It is worth mentioning that in Warsaw itself, 84% of the left-shore part of the city was destroyed, so the need to solve the dramatic problem of accommodation shortage was really great. It was concrete and brick debris created from the destroyed buildings that were used for making first prefabricates – debris and concrete bricks, e.g. Muranów blocks. In the end of the 60s, the constructors started to use concrete pre-fabricates for constructing entire buildings – first the ones built in closed systems (OWT-67, Domino, WUF-T, Dąbrowa 70, J. (Jelonki), Winogrady, Szczecin 1), which did not give much possibility for arranging flats, since all walls were supporting walls.
With the appearance of open systems (WT-70, Wk70) where only part of the walls were supporting walls, the buildings could be designed with more variation of plans and solutions. However, greated possibilities were not followed by the quality improvement of such construction. Lack of precision in manufacturing elements, trouble in joining them, wrong storage conditions, lack of qualified workers, lack of sense of responsibility for the work done and the faults of governmentally managed economy all were the reasons why the buildings from that period are made carelessly and non-professionally. These associations are still present in Polish minds.
“Lack of precision in manufacturing elements, trouble in joining them, wrong storage conditions, lack of qualified workers, lack of sense of responsibility for the work done and the faults of governmentally managed economy all were the reasons why the buildings from that period are made carelessly and non-professionally”.
Long live prefabrication
This is a paradox because in Poland, as many as 65% of the buildings are constructed using prefabrication technology – 30% are closed systems, 15% – W-70, 20% – Wk-70. There are 12 million residents taking up 4 million apartments, which is approx. 1/3 of the people living in Poland. For the reason of flats shortage on the market, even the flats in badly constructed buildings are very popular. Because of the scale of the problem, it is important to understand that although prefabricated buildings were supposed to last a maximum of 50 years, today their durability is prognosed to be a 100 years, therefore we need to think now what should be done with the big housing areas so that they meet contemporary standards.
The importance of the problem is reflected in granting the Mies van der Rohe Award 2017 to NL Architects and XVW architectuur for modernication of Kleiburg in Amsterdam.
Humanisation of housing areas, modernisation of buildings, transformation of flats, urban layout and architecture and spatial layout of the housing estates those are the main directions to be developed in order to use the potential of already constructed buildings and protect them against degrading. Additions and supplemens to the buildings, demolishion of entire condignations, differenciating forms of the buildings, building terraces on roofs, construction of external elevators, loggias, balconies, dividing spaces into public/private zones, or reconstructing ground floors for commercial premises are only some of the possibilities, as witnessed by the designs of Stefan Forster Architekten in Leinedelde-Worbis.
A sign of changes
Within the years 2003-2017, in Poland less than a million new flats were constructed (statistical data by GUS). It is only ¼ of the total amount of flats in the prefabricated blocks. It is worth underlining that among 77 494 new residential buildings constructed within the last 15 years, only 348 (0,4%) were constructed using the prefabrication technology. In comparison with 73 133 buildings erected in traditional technology (94,4%), the number goes almost unnoticed. Lack of trust towards technology and Polish lack of knowledge is the reason why there are no professionals in Poland who specialise in building using this technology, which is why despite great technological possibilities and potential, decrease of the construction costs, without the scale effect,using prefabrication for a single investment process is not cost-effective.
A sign of changes in the perception of prefabrication in Central and Eastern Europe may be a multi-family building, Sprzeczna 4, which was commissioned by a factory producing prefabricated elements. The building is a demonstration, proving that the construction of prefabricated elements can be varied, original, interesting and unexpected. Sprzeczna 4 tries to break with the myth of the large panel and become a kind of signpost towards the future, in which prefabrication is a valued and equal building method.
This time without mistakes
The only correct direction for prefabrication to gain popularity is promoting it and educating the society – not only the potential resients but, above all, architects who often do not realise the benefits of the technology such as speed of construction, elimination of construction faults by using ready-made elements, which increases safety during construction, prolonging the construction season as the buildings may be erected irrespective of weather, no joints, no construction debris, opportunity to save on materials, possibility of combining modern and traditional technologies, high safety levels and low production costs.
Despite its many advantages, we cannot forget about the limitations of prefabrication, e.g. no possibility of changes during the construction process, which requires envolvement of highly qualified staff, abvance detailed preparation of all elements, costly transportation of the big parts – it is necessary to use heavy-weigt equipment, like cranes even with low buildings, in order to save time, the elements should be produced before getting the construction permit, which, with uncertain administrative proceedings, can sometimes be risky.
Taking all of this into consideration, it is worth to look closer at prefabrication today because it may again solve the housing problems, this time helping to avoid the mistakes made by the modernism pioneers.