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New technologies, like virtual reality and augmented reality, are changing the process of design. Yet, so are new processes. Here, Raconteur explores the evolving role of the architect in the prefabricated design process.

As a newly qualified architecture graduate in the mid-90s, James Pickard said goodbye to the UK and moved to Sweden. He found a job, enrolled at night school to learn Swedish and set out to immerse himself in the country’s design culture.

You’ll see architects creating far more interesting plan forms and giving people huge variety of choice

One day on his way to work, he noticed a house under construction. Mr Pickard grew increasingly incredulous as he saw the building take shape throughout the week. On the fifth day, the house was completed and he saw a family eating dinner inside. He knocked on the door and asked if he could take a look around.

The house had been built using prefabricated construction: manufactured in sections at a factory and then assembled on site. Once inside, Mr Pickard was taken aback. Back in the UK, prefab was still a byword for poor design quality. This house featured heated floors, triple glazing and insulation so efficient that the radiators were the size of small briefcases. “That was my first awakening to the benefits of off-site manufacturing,” he says.

Architects’ concerns about modular homes
Two years later, Mr Pickard was back in the UK and running his own practice. Cartwright Pickard had been in business for a month when Peabody, a , announced it was seeking prefab designs for a project in Hackney. Drawing on Mr Pickard’s experience in Sweden, the practice submitted a proposal and won its first commission.

Murray Grove was completed in November 1999 and were the UK’s first modular apartment buildings. Thirty homes were completed in six months, around half the typical build time, and the project went on to win a series of design awards.

Nearly 20 years on, boundaries are still being broken in prefab construction: a deal was struck earlier this year to develop the world’s tallest modular towers in Croydon. But prefab is still nowhere near mainstream adoption in the housing market. Why? Mr Pickard believes architects, and their reluctance to embrace standardised construction methods, deserve a share of the blame. “bespoke, one-off and, if it isn’t, we’re doing ourselves out of a job,” he says.

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