Homebuyers Find Style and Substance in Prefab Houses [European Style – Ed]

Picturing a prefabricated house is hard in the Kenyan context where stone and mortar buildings are popular with homeowners and property developers. It is hard to think of a prefab as a building with a long life.

Prefabricated house with a shed roof and timber framework in Europe. Photo/FILE

Prefabricated house with a shed roof and timber framework in Europe. Photo/FILE

But the growing cost of housing and construction, improved technology are helping to lower the cost for the buyer increasing their popularity among home owners.

Not only are new materials being used in the construction of houses in Kenya, but also new techniques.

Prefabricated houses are essentially houses that are pre-made at a factory or different location and assembled on site.

The most common material used is timber, but more recently technology that uses concrete, steel and even polystyrene (EPS) has emerged increasing choice for buyers.

Prefabs have been gaining popularity over the years due to their flexibility, cost efficiency and the limited time it takes to put them up.

A house can take anywhere between three days to six months to set up depending on how intricate the design is, the size and the materials being incorporated into the structure. This compares favourably compared to the conventional method of stone and mortar.

One of the biggest nightmares new home owners face during the construction phase of their houses is overshooting the budget.

This is usually due to loss of material, shifty contractors and the completion date that keeps being pushed back further and further, making that house but a dream, and an expensive one at that.

“With prefabs, you not only save on labour costs, but there is also no loss of material as the basic blocks of the structure are done in controlled environment like a factory,” says Lekina Tutui, project manager of Zen House at Zenith Steel Prefabricators limited.

Zen House is an insulated concrete block—Styrofoam encased in two layers of concrete—to make up the walls and steel columns which make up the support of the house. Using the technology, the building can go up to over twenty storeys and as wide as the client wishes.

The technology is similar to that used by state corporation NHC, save for the fact that they use expandable polystyrene between the concrete blocks.

The project by NHC, which is being used in the construction of police houses, is a cost cutting measure to provide affordable housing for Kenyans, an initiative by the government.

Wooden or timber prefabs are the most commonly known and used in Kenya. Economic Housing Group (EHG) and Timsales are some of the companies that have been involved in the setup of these houses.

Jackson Majani, EHG’s sales manager, said prefabs have become more sophisticated over the years, with clients opting for houses as large as six-bedroomed and some going up a storey or two.

The uptake of wooden prefabs though there has been limited due to the issue of security; however Non-governmental organisations are regular clients of the technology.

Mr Majani said it is still a strong belief among Kenyans that to be safe one must live in a stone house. To cater for the various clients, EHG offers an option of half concrete- half wooden prefab, which is more aesthetic than functional.

To assure their clients EHG offer a 50-year guarantee on their buildings

“The buildings will withstand the damage of sun, rain, insects and even termites,” he says. In Europe and the US, this is a popular form of accommodation.

With wooden prefabs, the flexibility goes beyond the design.

According to Majani, if the client wants to move to a different place or has built a more permanent residence, they can come in, dismantle the house and relocate it to the new location or buy back components from the customer. This means you can literally move with your house from one point to another on a need basis.

The ground is usually levelled and compacted before being treated. The team then arrives with the different components and assembles the house which can take anywhere from a day to three months.

“We have pre-existing designs or the client sits with our people and we draw up plans depending on what they want,” he explains.

The client involvement in the design is not limited to the wooden prefabs, at Eco Homes, who do purely concrete prefabs and Zenith who do insulated concrete with steel prefabs, the client can come up with the design they prefer and given a quotation accordingly.

How big the house is depends on the size of the land one has. Monica Ngunura, Eco Homes marketing manager, says they can build a house as small as 45 square metres, which usually costs Sh1.2 million to put up.

At Zenith, the Zen house the 32 square metre bedsitter, the smallest they offer costs Sh1.17 million to set up. These costs include the foundation, kitchen fittings, floor and wall tiles and inbuilt wardrobes.

“When you move in, all you have to bring is your clothes and additional furniture,” explains Tutui.

Ms Ngunura says Eco Homes it takes anything from 12 weeks, whereas at Zenith, a basic two bedroomed unit takes about 8 weeks to set up.

The difference between the two types of buildings is that Eco homes use reinforced concrete slabs for their walls; they are about 2.4 metres high but cannot be stacked on top of each other due to their weight, meaning you cannot have a storey building.

The Zen House on the other hand uses a small amount of concrete to encase the Styrofoam and steel columns for support; hence the building can go up several floors depending on client design.

“We increased the amount of concrete we use for the walls because clients still believe that for security purposes, the walls must be stone or very thick, explains Tutui.

For concrete prefabs, unlike those made of timber, are permanent and have a lifespan of over 100 years, similar to the conventional stone and mortar house.

The same guidelines and laws apply during the set-up of these houses; there must be approval from the county council, city planner and health officer as well as the environmental impact assessment.

However, not all prefabs are permanent structures. The recent shelters being set up by Swedish technicians from the Clean Analytical System Company at the National Disaster Management grounds in Embakasi.

The units which can accommodate four people are being costed at Sh900,000.

As Greenfield is under construction at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Kenya Airports Authority contracted a German firm to supply prefabricated structures to use before it opens in 2017.

The prefabricated semi-permanent terminal is expected to have a capacity of 2.5 million passengers annually.

– Business Daily