23rd September 2011
Flat-pack housing: The Italian Job innovation
By Ben Sillis

Michael Caine’s character in the smash hit 1969 film The Italian Job might have insisted that only the bloody doors were supposed to be blown off, but the film – and the Minis it made instantly famous – did much more than that. They directly helped create a new era of prefab homes across Europe, courtesy of IKEA, and one very dedicated fan.

Prefab homes are nothing new – for better or worse, their factory made parts have been a hallmark of the English landscape since the end of the Second World War – but after brief flirtations with concrete monstrosities and glass mausoleums over the decades, they’re set to come back in vogue once again as an affordable solution to the mushrooming population.

Taking inspiration from an 60s icon

This time though, they’re not backed by banks and barons, Arabs and oil, but high street stores. Supermarket giant Tesco has built a swathe of developments across the south-east, completely specced out with affordable homes, shops, hotels and even primary schools. Chic minimalist retailer Muji is the proud beneficiary of a property development in Japan.

And then there’s IKEA: purveyor of all things flatpacked, it now sells prefab homes in five countries across Europe via a partnership with Skanska, called BoKlok. Apartment blocks, terraced houses, detached villas, they’re all sold by the batch, pieced together in a day, and yet still offer all your new home amenities: balconies, communal areas, and yes, even a lemon tree.

What you may not realise whilst flicking through the glossy online brochures for BoKlok is where some of it success secrets come from: they’re courtesy of the 1960s Mini Cooper S, and one man’s love of cars.

Ready to race once again

David Morton, an architect from the north-east, is as much concerned with how a building is put together as what it looks like when it’s done.

“My father was an engineer so I’ve always looked at things in that kind of way. I always like looking at how things work as an architect,” he tells Humans Invent.

“You’ve got to make a massive impact on the environment, on society and social practice…when does a space become a place? Those kind of questions have always intrigued me. How far can we go as architects?”

Doubtless it’s this fascination that landed him the job as lead architect for BoKlok UK. But it also instilled in him a lifelong obsession with cars – Minis in particularly. Built as a response to the 1956 Suez crisis and consequent fuel shortage, they, along with their transverse engine and logical construction, were the epitome of compact design for decades.

“It’s the simplicity. You could not get any simpler in terms of design, or space. They are hysterically simple. There’s a big appeal for me there. They’re put together very logically. I like that, that appeals to me.”

So much so, that he now owns one modern Mini Cooper and six vintage Minis. That includes the three famous ones from the original Italian Job, which he spent years painstakingly putting back together.

“I bought what was left of them and I rebuilt them as close to the film spec as possible,” Morton says.  “All the original cars were all smashed, they stripped them. All the components, stripped them because they were all completely smashed from all the stunts in the film…What I bought was a whole box of parts.”

David Morton, far right, next to his Minis

Eventually he restored them to working order – with a little help from Maurice Micklewhite himself of course. “Having somebody show you how to put the jigsaw back together, that was fantastic,” Morton recalls of Sir Michael Caine, CBE, who put him in touch with the original film set’s stunt driver.

The Italian Job originals solve an engineering puzzle

But along the way, Morton’s Mini obsession helped him solve two problems putting BoKlok houses together.  “Whenever you’re putting houses in, you’ve got lots of different options – and the potential for mistake. And that has to be designed out,” he says.

One of the biggest problems with a flat packed house is making all the connections, the gas, the electricity and the plumbing, completely modular. As Morton puts it: “in most houses, every time you have a bend, you could have a leak.”

To solve this, Morton looked under the bonnet of his beloved Mini. Taking inspiration from its wiring loom, he came up with the concept of a service wall, one side of the house where everything can simply be slotted in – and fixed if needed.

“With a Mini you have a wiring loom, it all goes in at the same place…If you want to modify anything in the Mini, you can take things out and plug things in,” he says.

“What I did was create a service wall that was oversized and quite deep: it had all the electrics in, the plumbing in, and whatever room it was, you just plug it in, it goes back to that very simple concept.”

A BoKlok terraced house in Sweden

The Mini’s space saving design also helped Morton solve how to put a BoKlok house together efficiently to begin with. We all know how frustrating putting together flatpack furniture can be: you could swear there’s one missing part or things don’t quite sit snugly.

Now imagine those problems, amplified, with the house you intend to raise a family in. While putting up BoKlok walls is a quick job compared to masonry, it’s also very easy to place them in such a way that they end up being millimetres out – and those millimetres make all the difference when it rains.

“With timber frame systems, the biggest headache on site is the ground beam, a number of timbers attached to a slab that you connect your walls together. The headache is how can you ensure that they all sit as you put them down on the slab.

“If you have a lump of timber on top of a lump of timber, that could sit at any angle. They can move and twist and be slightly off, so when you put a wall in, it could be a long way out at one end…that flummoxed us for a long time,” says Morton.

Finding a solution in your hobbies

The solution came when Morton was working on one of his cars. “I was fixing a Mini, and noticed that the bonnet itself, the lip of the bonnet sits inside the wings and the scuttle panel that’s formed by the window.”

More than 5,000 BoKlok properties have been sold

This idea of a latch helps place the walls at the right angle, without the need for industrial sized spirit levels. “Because they fit inside the groove, there’s not much option for getting it wrong,” says Morton. “You’re cutting out the options for error by splitting the soleplates. When you sit the wall down now, you can’t put it in wrong. It’s like closing a bonnet, you can’t close a bonnet wrong.”

They say an idea is a connection between two existing objects or notions. By that definition, Morton’s observations are ideas that have helped BoKlok sell five thousand homes across Europe, with more to come: all the apartments in the original Gateshead BoKlok development are sold, and IKEA’s construction arm, Inter Ikea, is readying another development in the Olympic site in Stratford in East London.

But have we lost Morton’s source for inspiration? Like many young boys, Morton, now a senior lecturer at Northumbria university, was obsessed with taking anything and everything apart. The difference is, he enjoyed putting them back together again too. In an age of digital entertainment and consumption, he’s not so sure others find the same appealing.

“Working with your hands, building things – architecture is a bigger version of it,” he reflects. “I think a couple of generations have lost out in the satisfaction of making something and fixing something.”

“Seeing solutions in a completely different place – as an architect you should look at these things, and see solutions for other objects and other problems. That’s the bit I find really good fun.”

Perhaps more people should try to blow the doors off cars too: even if you don’t get the gold, you never know what Eureka moments might come of it.

Images: F Stop Press and BoKlok

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