Industry Insight | May 29th, 2014

Modular/prefab is now mainstream, but it is certainly not new. [Part 1]

News articles are frequently popping up about “new” modular or “new” prefab construction methods as both gain popularity throughout the world. Using pre-assembled building components, in whole or in part, is absolutely a better way to build, but it is certainly not a new construction method. Prefabrication has been around for centuries.

Pictured above left, one of the first prefab houses, still standing in Australia today, constructed circa 1830. Pictured above right, the first modular hospital erected in 1855 during the Crimean War. It was disassembled in 1857. 

England, circa 3800 BC.

The Sweet Track, a prehistoric timber roadway, built in England circa 3800 BC, is believed to be constructed of prefabricated sections brought to site, rather than assembled onsite[1].

Sri Lanka, 12th century A.D.

Famous architect, Ashley de Vos, confirms that ancient Sri Lankans had very sophisticated architecture and a tremendous understanding of structural mechanics. He has suggested ancient Kings of Sri Lanka erected the first prefab buildings in the world, over 2000 years ago [2].

Pictured above left, Royal Palace. Above right, Vatadage. Both in Polonnaruwa [ancient Sri Lanka], built 12th century A.D. – World Heritage Sites. Are these the world’s first prefab buildings?!?
Australia, 1830’s

The first advertised commercially built prefab homes were produced in the 1830’s by John H. Manning in England. He designed the first documented prefab prototype for his son who was emigrating to Australia. These homes were designed to be packaged into small, lightweight components that could be easily transported and reassembled overseas.These shelters arrived on ships before tradespeople and materials were readily available. Several hundred portable homes [not exclusively “Manning cottages”] arrived in Australia during the peak, approximately 1850. Remarkably, many of them are still standing today [3]!

“These buildings are, for the most part, impossible to identify on internal evidence with any certainty.” 


“The Diagnosis of Prefabricated Buildings”, Miles Lewis – describing how difficult it is to identify prefabs built in Australia from 1835 – 1855

World’s First Modular Hospital, 1855
Florence Nightingale inspired the first documented modular hospital, following her plea in 1854 to the government to find a solution to the deplorable conditions for the wounded during the Crimean War.

A new modular hospital in Renkioi, Turkey, was commissioned and built within 5 months, including innovations in sanitation, ventilation and even a flush toilet. Death rates were believed to have been reduced from 42% to 3.5% during it’s time.

According to Wikipedia, “Renkioi Hospital had a short life. It received its first casualties in October 1855, was closed in July 1856, and was sold to the Ottoman Empire in September 1856. But even for such short used institutions, it was feted as a great success. Sources state that of the approximately 1,300 patients treated in the hospital, there were only 50 deaths. In the Scutari hospital, deaths were said to be as many as 10 times this number.”


[1] Prefabrication [Wikipedia]; Section of the Sweet Track [The British Museum]
[2] Architecture of Ancient Sri Lanka [Small Miracle, Dana Hansy]; Prefabrication [Wikipedia]
[3] Manning Portable Colonial Cottage for Emigrants 1833 – 1840 []; Heritage Living, page 12 [National Trust of South Australia]; The Diagnosis of Prefabricated Buildings [Australian Historical Archaeology]
[4] Prefabricated Building [Wikipedia]; Renkioi Hospital [Wikipedia]


It’s a better way to build. Since 3800 B.C.

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