If you find the term ‘prefabricated building’ causes you to wince involuntarily and think of rows of pastel coloured 1950’s bungalows, asbestos roofs and picket-fenced gardens, you will not be alone, you may, however, want to think again.   Angela Brennan talks to local architect Annelies Rygole from Ark Rooms about an innovative new way to create living space.

The ‘Prefab’ is back, but not the prefab that we know.  Massively popular on the continent, and now rebranded as ‘modular’ construction, it is slick and smart – the buildings are energy efficient and economical; buildings, whole cities even, can be built on site before you can say ‘Grand Designs’. If we can manage to set aside our national scepticism for prefabricated housing, then here in the UK, with our housing shortages, high moving costs, and idiosyncratic weather, there is a lot to be gained.

Annelies is the Design Director at Wash Common based design and build company, Ark Rooms, she explains how they came to be pioneering ‘Structural Insulated Panels’ (SIPs) for residential extensions.  “We thought, why just new builds? Why not use this idea on extensions?”  She gestures outside at the drizzle “With this weather, why are we struggling to build outside? These modern methods of construction are all about taking as much of the grunt work away from cold, wet building sites as possible.” Even to my uninitiated self, the concept of doing most of the construction work inside, away from the British weather, sounds like a no brainer. “With Ark Rooms. We developed our own unique SIP system which produces an excellent thermal performance and can be used for wall, floor and roof panels for our extensions – they are constructed in our workshop then assembled on site.”

My own first, and until now, only, knowledge of modular building stems from watching the occasional episode of DIY SOS – naturally this makes me an expert –  ‘So you can build it in a week then?’ I say, laying down the gauntlet.  Annelies grins at me “That would be nice wouldn’t it!  Not quite a week, but as little as ten days depending on the site.   And as most of our extensions can be done under Permitted Development you can just get straight on with it.”  

From an environmental point of view too, modular construction has a lot to recommend it.  Insulated panels are built to the millimetre, they are supremely air tight, and as a result cost effective to heat – in fact many modern prefabs don’t require much at all in the way of heating, except in the coldest weeks of the year.  And by manufacturing in quantity, the amount of waste per build is drastically reduced, so no need for the skips headed for landfill.  Annelies says of Ark Rooms Left over materials simply get used on the next project. The carbon footprint of each project will be considerably less than with a traditional build;  fewer people are travelling to site, and fewer people on site means less noise, less commercial traffic from deliveries of materials and collection of waste, less dust – and all this reduces disruption to the clients, children and pets and to the neighbours too.”

A trip round to see Annelies and her husband Peter (also an architect) at the home they designed and built, is enough to bring on a severe dose of ‘house envy’ in me.  I would previously have thought that ‘modern’ and ‘cosy’ were two mutually exclusive terms in home design, but they have achieved both with (stylishly concealed) knobs on.   From the oak clad window seat and reading corner to the floor to ceiling windows overlooking the garden– it’s all beautiful.   ‘So are your extensions going to look like this then?’  I ask, expecting a ‘no’.  ‘Oh but they do!’ replies Annelies ‘from the outside, the extension can blend with the existing building or it can be completely different but complementary, and the interior can have all sorts of finishes – so it matches your existing home, or you can choose something different and modern.  We use high quality windows and doors with great lighting, and top quality flooring– so it’s a room you actually want to live in and spend time in.’   Since my interior design credentials do not extend beyond choosing-stuff-in-Dunelm, I can’t help but think with these two sorting out the design, I would be very happy to leave it in their hands.  

‘But what about the cost?’  In my experience, high quality involves a high price tag, but idly browsing the estimator tool on the Ark Rooms website, is a (pleasant) surprise.  Can you really get an architect designed extension for £20,000(inc VAT)? It turns out you can, and when you compare the cost of moving house to gain a bedroom, the Rightmove cost estimator produces an eye-watering £27,000 just on stamp duty, fees, and removal costs to upsize from 3 bedrooms to 4 in the Newbury area.   These are figures that speak for themselves.   

But what I notice most about the Ark Rooms team is the way they work.   The techie jargon is interesting enough, the cost is, well, a revelation frankly, but when it comes to it, I want to work with people who listen, and people who I trust to be in and around my home. Local, and independent are two words that mean a lot to the team at Ark Rooms.  They have lived and worked in and around Newbury for several years – it is their home, and they look after their clients as they would their neighbours.   They have become with friends with clients from previous projects ‘It’s just the way we work, and in a small community like Newbury it works really well – its lovely that some of our clients are now our friends and our families meet up socially.’   

Previous clients are effusive in their praise of Ark; ‘We particularly like the way they are a real team, who genuinely seem to love what they do. They treated our project as if it was their home and we feel that that is reflected in the result.’ The Ark Rooms venture is something that they are justifiably proud of.  ‘We are a small company, but we are so excited to be doing this.  We designed our own SIPs, we make them, and we are among the first to be using them for small projects where you work closely with the client.  To be able to use it to help our clients create space they love living in, for an architect, that’s job satisfaction!’

If you are interested in knowing more, contact the Ark team via www.arkrooms.com or give them a call on 01635 229229.

Article by Angela Brennan for The Wash Commoner, March 2017


State of the Ark