Homes ordered online and delivered via courier - in flat packs

Homes ordered online and delivered via courier - in flat packs

ORDER your homes online, and have them delivered to you in IKEA-style flat packs. Such a housing model may well come to Singapore one day.

Already, such complete "prefab" houses - as opposed to just prefab walls and rooms - have been popularised by San Francisco-based startup Avava Systems, which in August unveiled Britespace, its range of high-end, flat-pack homes that come with a living area, kitchen, bathroom and elegant wood finishes. The homes range from 264 to 480 square feet and cost no more than US$225,000.

When the trend takes hold here, will it shake Singapore's building and real estate industry to its core? The Business Times posed this question to regulators and other industry players.

Although not closed to the idea, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) advised that such flat-pack homes will be subject to regulatory and technical laws. Its spokesman said: "Building works, unless otherwise exempted, must be designed and constructed in accordance with the requirements under the Building Control Act and Regulations to ensure the buildings are safe for occupation."

The spokesman added that technical clearances from other agencies are needed before the issuance of a temporary occupation permit or a certificate of statutory completion for a building. "These regulatory and technical requirements would apply to such flat-pack houses."

Infrastructure conglomerate Surbana Jurong too raised the issues of safety and quality, noting that any type of housing here would require the design and submission by a qualified architect and a professional engineer to the authorities. Nevertheless, it was supportive of the offering. Group CEO Wong Heang Fine told BT that Surbana Jurong would "certainly pay attention" to the development of prefab homes to see if it can "add to the quality and diversity of housing" in Singapore.

Mr Wong even offered a tip for such homes. He said: "Due to the high humidity and rainfall in Singapore that may affect the materials used, flat-pack houses would have to be modified to suit the local climate."

Christine Li, research director at real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield, was more sceptical. While she hailed prefab homes as a "very interesting" concept, she said it might not take off in Singapore where the majority of vacant land belongs to the state and it would be illegal for someone to erect a structure on vacant land.

Ms Li added that Singapore has the "lower-income families well-taken care of". As they are entitled to more subsidies when buying homes, there is "no urgency" for them to opt for prefab homes.

She added that the Housing Development Board (HDB) has said it would be building more two-room flats and studios to cater to more market segments.

"I don't think financing for flat-pack homes is available in Singapore at the moment. I would imagine such houses still cost like tens of thousands of dollars if not hundreds. So the initial capital outlay is quite substantial compared to a smaller HDB flat directly from the government."

Avava chief Benjamin Kimmich said that one of its goal is to create more affordable, efficient living spaces. Inspired by the "rapid construction of modular systems", Avava is looking to push the boundaries of micro-housing, a concept increasingly tenable in land-scarce Singapore, as new market segments seek smaller and more bespoke urban housing options.

Globally, the prefab sector is growing, mainly in Europe, Canada and the United States. In 2010, Bali (known for its artistic and practical architecture) exported over 98,000 flat-pack homes worth nearly US$15 million. Startups are increasingly getting into this space, among them Acre Designs, LivingHomes and Connect Homes.

IKEA, the world's largest furniture retailer that pioneered ready-to-assemble furniture, is notably not in the game. But its designers in Portland had worked with prefab studio ideabox to launch flat-pack homes designed around IKEA furniture in 2012.

Further evidence of its potential comes from Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC's recent investment in Yes! Communities, one of the largest owners of US manufactured-home communities. Homegrown container company Anderco also offers prefab dorms, hospitals, schools and offices, just not homes.

Hugh Mason, co-founder of corporate innovation firm JFDI, said it would be interesting to know if regulations, environmental factors or just conservatism would hold back this approach in Singapore. "I'm not surprised Singapore is looking at innovation in construction, but will be more surprised if the planning regime changes such that people can build anywhere!"

In a severely land-challenged country where the majority buy high-rise public flats, self-order prefab homes put together with the help of a construction company remain a far-fetched idea.

But it's encouraging that even at this premature stage, various quarters are already recognising that disruption takes no prisoners.

This article was first published on Sept 10, 2016.
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