COMMENTARY

Are factory-built solutions the future?

Are factory-built solutions the future?

A case for rethinking, reshaping and challenging our fit-out and refurbishment approach

Pre-manufactured structures have been around for a very long time. One of the first known examples is the Sweet Track walkway in the United Kingdom, made of pre-fabricated timber components, which was built back in 3807 B.C. More contemporary examples range from the Crystal Palace in London to the Lustron Homes of North America in the late 1940s.

However, there is a paucity of literature on pre-manufactured interiors. Perhaps an early example is the use of flat and sliding screens to define interior space—most associated with the Japanese shoji—which appeared in China circa 400 B.C. More recently, this is associated with concepts such as Action Office, the open-plan office system with adjustable, modular furniture that created the much-despised office cubicles of the 1960s.

Other ambitious projects include the Dymaxion House, originally designed by Buckminster Fuller in 1930, and redesigned in 1945, to be mass-produced, sustainable autonomous single-family dwellings that are earthquake and storm resistant. Supported by a central column from which all permanent utility cables would be suspended, it allowed the rest of the interior space to remain modular and flexible. Notably, the Dymaxion House was conceived to be entirely factory built, using processes, materials and technology commonly found in automotive factories of the day. It was to be the living machine of the future that could be flat-packed and shipped anywhere in the world. Although never built, the Dymaxion’s design demonstrated forward-thinking and influential innovations in prefabrication and sustainability.

There are also the modular hotels with its pre-manufactured interiors. The most exciting project is the upcoming AC Hotel Nomad by Marriott in New York. At 360 feet high, it will be the world’s tallest modular building with 26 storeys and 168 rooms. The guestrooms will be prefabricated off-site and fully outfitted, down to the beds, sheets, pillow, flooring and even toiletries.

Are factory-built solutions the future?

PREFABRICATED REFURBISHMENTS?

But the key question I want to pose is: Why can’t pre-manufactured interiors be appropriate for existing buildings and luxury interiors?

After all, the advantages are significant:

  • More efficient use of labour
  • Less need for on-site skilled labour
  • A controlled factory environment with protection from the elements
  • Elimination of messy, labour-intensive wet processes
  • Less waste—which equates to more sustainable construction and the opportunity to use more advanced, sustainable materials
  • Better quality control
  • Shorter time from start of contract to hotel occupancy
  •  Through the above, lower design-to-installation cost and lower whole-life cost

But perhaps the most intriguing advantage is one that, at first glance, is less obvious. The use of pre-manufactured interiors means that interior fit-out is free from noise and air pollution. Where many cities restrict working times (e.g. 9am to 5pm in Singapore), there is a case to be made to the authorities for 24-hour work, which would slash fit-out times and costs.

What is required to achieve this within a refurbishment programme?

First of all, you need a solid team of highly experienced product, industrial and interior designers, and MEP engineers with an understanding of the whole construction and fit-out process, all working together coherently to push the boundaries of technology and materials.

Let’s look at parallel examples. Aviation interiors—such as Singapore Airlines’ latest business class cabin, which we recently designed, along with cabin interiors for Cathay Pacific, Brussels Airlines, Garuda Indonesia and Hawaiian Airlines—are in many ways the ultimate expression of smart spaces. A cabin is much like a small hotel—a workstation, entertainment centre, dining ‘room’, lounge seat and a nice bed all in one. Our designers were challenged to use every millimetre of space to create an ergonomic seat and cabin design. The interiors are designed, engineered and pre-manufactured in large numbers in a controlled environment and are among the final fixtures installed in the aircraft.

The everyday car is also a good example. While the exterior of a car has typically been the focal point of any new model launch, the interior has become increasingly important to meet consumers’ increased expectations. Designers have to pay close attention to all areas—from the cabin shape, materials, air vents and dashboard to the technology used—to ensure the car connects with its users and performs intuitively. The interiors are then mass manufactured and fitted by robots.

Are factory-built solutions the future?

Business class cabins are examples of classy and smart pre-manufactured interiors

Based on these parallel industry examples, couldn’t the interiors of hotels and buildings be designed using similar processes, materials and intelligent methodologies? This could transform the building industry and the use of space, creating innovative, high-end designs and far more affordable environments quickly and efficiently. These mass production processes can easily apply to both refurbishment and new build projects.

“These mass production processes can easily apply to both refurbishment and new build projects.”

Such a concept is especially beneficial in dense metropolitan cities where space is a luxury. For instance, in Hong Kong, prefabricated interiors would lift the ambience and quality of an interior space, while allowing for specifications that can maximise every available square foot—all installed in a fraction of the time and at a reduced cost compared with a ‘typical’ refurbishment.

It is also helpful in areas undergoing rapid urbanisation or high tourist arrivals. For instance, in 2017, around 2.4 million Muslims descended on Mecca to perform the hajj pilgrimage. Of these, 1.8 million came from outside Saudi Arabia—and the numbers are expected to double. With factory-built solutions, high-density accommodation to cater for the growing number of pilgrims can be built in a shorter time frame and at a lower cost.

Are factory-built solutions the future?

At a larger scale, pre-manufactured building processes can go a very long way in easing the global housing shortage.

At JPA Design, we are currently prefabricating interiors for a co-living project in Singapore. While co-living may not be for everyone, the concept has gained traction over the years, providing affordable and conveniently located spaces and community experiences. The personal spaces such as bedrooms and bathrooms present the perfect opportunity to use the pre-manufactured approach. We are currently collaborating with industry leaders to refine fixing details and installation methods.

COMBINING DESIGN & TECHNOLOGY

We are embracing technological advancements in our daily lives—from the cars we drive, the airplanes we fly, the hotels we stay in and the way we make a phone call—as these make life easier, more convenient, more efficient and more pleasing to look at.

Now is the time to look seriously at new ways of combining inspired design with technology, new materials and mass production processes in our interior spaces. No doubt design trends have changed over the years—designers have done brilliant things with textures, colours, materials and form—but have we really challenged ourselves with how we’re fitting-out our spaces? Have we really tapped into the huge advancements that we have in manufacturing industries to revolutionise the interiors industry?

With the obvious benefits of pre-manufacturing, we should be striving to rethink, reshape and challenge our fit-out and refurbishment approach to revolutionise the way we re-use old buildings and the way we create homes, hotels and most of our built environment.

JAMES PARK
Founder and Principal, JPA Design

Park is primarily involved in business development and providing overall direction to JPA’s Singapore, UK and Dubai offices, as well as facilitating selected far-reaching projects.

Graduating from the Architectural Association, he set up James Park Associates in the early 1980s. In its early days, the firm was involved with transport interiors, most notably the re-designs for the iconic Venice-Simplon-Orient Express and, subsequently, the design and engineering for the Eastern and Oriental Express in Singapore. As a result, James Park Associates Pte Ltd was born in Singapore, growing from a small interiors and architectural consultancy to one specialising in premium environments for the hospitality and transportation sectors.

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