Written by Oscar Holland, CNN
On a building site about 50 miles outside the Philippine capital of Manila, construction is underway on a completely new 346-acre town.
But much of the work is taking place elsewhere. In fact, most of the 6,000 homes in the development, called Batulao Artscapes, will be prefabricated -- built in factories and then transported to the site.
Expected to complete by 2020, the masterplan comprises 12 different styles of home set across four "villages." Prospective residents can choose from prefabs designed by notable creatives, from artist David Salle to the musician-turned-interior-designer Lenny Kravitz.
But given that modular homes were initially created to deliver affordable housing -- quickly and at volume --what can an entire town of designer prefabs offer that conventional settlement can't?
A different model
For Dutch designer Marcel Wanders -- whose "Eden" house is being made available in Batulao Artscapes -- a large-scale approach makes prefabs more viable for both designers and buyers.
"The problem with prefab housing is that while you can buy the house and build it quickly, you have a lot on your plate," he said in a phone interview.
1/17Renowned interior and product designer Marcel Wanders marks his first venture into prefab design with his glass-walled "Eden" houses. Credit: Batulao Artscapes
"You still need electricity, water, sewage -- it needs a lot of stuff. We'd basically be creating half a product. So I thought, 'Why wouldn't we make a prototype for a developer (who can) build and sell the houses?'
"Now you can have a prefab house that has everything you want -- electricity and so on -- that is organized by the developer."
Renowned as an interior and product designer, Wanders was initially approached to work on the garden design at Batulao Artscapes. The Eden houses marks his first venture into prefab design.
The Dutchman's glass-walled houses come in three distinct styles. Inhabitants are able to customize their purchase with different color schemes and finishing materials. And while the homes will be constructed in a factory, they were designed with the Philippine climate in mind.
Filipino industrial designer Kenneth Cobonpue has made his prefab duplex available to prospective residents at Batulao Artscapes. Credit: Batulao Artscapes
"They have these two big colonnades which are there to keep the roof up -- but they also turn the outdoor space into an indoor space," Wanders said. "In the Philippines, the outside is great, but you want to be protected from the sun. So (the houses have) shading and roofing that makes them livable, with a big tree on the inside too.
"Behind the glass you'll have your bedroom, a small living room and your inside kitchen. But as soon as you open the glass walls, the kitchen suddenly has an outdoor area.
"Then you have a really big home for the price of a small one."
The economics of prefabs
This rationale may apply at the lower end of the development's offerings -- the cheapest homes are being sold for 2.5 million Philippine pesos (approximately $50,000). But with the most expensive units expected to go for 26 million pesos (over $1 million), the project also reflects a growing market for luxury prefabs.
Attitudes towards this once utilitarian form of housing are changing, according to Sheri Koones, a journalist and author of six books on prefabricated housing.
Philippine architecture and design firm Budji+Royal designed all of the houses in the Collection village, one of the first four clusters of homes to open in Batulao Artscapes. Credit: Batulao Artscapes
"It's just a much better way of building," she said in a phone interview. "Now, people are building not only inexpensive homes, but designer houses. The most important thing is that you can have your house more quickly. You don't have mold and a lot of the problems that you would have with wood that has been exposed to the elements.
"When they first started building modular houses, they were very simple. But they've just become much more intricate. Years ago, there were things that they couldn't do, and today they can do almost anything."
A prefab designed by the Los Angeles-based architecture firm Marmol Radziner. Interiors were designed by Kravitz Design, a boutique firm established by musician Lenny Kravitz. Credit: Batulao Artscapes
But if customers fork out for high-end units, one of the primary benefits of prefab housing -- namely lower costs -- may be undermined, explained Ryan E. Smith, an Associate Professor and Director of the Integrated Technology & Architecture Center (ITAC) at the University of Utah.
"The whole game is about value creation," he said in a phone interview.
"Whether it's one house or thousands of units, the question is, 'If I do more in a factory does it add value to the overarching proposition?' If it doesn't, then you don't do it, rather than chasing some kind of idealism or the novelty that comes from (having a house that was) made in a factory.
An 81,000-square-foot artificial lake will be built at the heart of the Batulao Artscapes development. Credit: Batulao Artscapes
"Modular construction takes about 30 to 60 percent more material to put into the building in order to stabilize it -- we've done that research. But the money you save in lifecycle costs -- time and labor -- is how you're able to compete," said Smith, who is also a trained architect and author of the book "Offsite Architecture: Constructing the Future."
Nonetheless, Smith said that prefab developments on the scale of Batulao Artscapes have not been attempted "in recent times" -- meaning that the sums may yet add up.
"The volume that they're showing presents a real opportunity," he said of the Philippine development. "This kind of (project) is rare, therefore it's hard to tell whether they can capitalize on it and deliver on their promise."
A 'livable art park'
There are certainly plenty of promises being made.
In addition to high-end prefabs, Batulao Artscapes is offering extensive public art facilities designed by the likes of Pritzker Prize-winning architects Christian de Portzamparc and Jean Nouvel, the man behind the Copenhagen Concert Hall and the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
The firm responsible for the project, Revolution Precrafted, claims that it is offering people a rare chance to live in a home designed by a leading architect.
It also hopes to create a community of likeminded people, according to Robbie Antonio, the CEO of Revolution Precrafted and managing director of Century Properties, the Philippine real estate giant bankrolling the $1.1 billion project.
The detached residential unit "Tranche" has four bedrooms set across three floors.
Credit: Batulao Artscapes
"(The residents will all share) the same DNA of people wanting to live in beautiful homes and beautiful structures," he said in a phone interview.
A keen art collector who once commissioned Dutch 'starchitect' Rem Koolhas to design his Manila mansion, Antonio says that he was inspired by public art spaces like Naoshima, Japan's "art island."
"There was no real master plan for the world's first livable art park," he said. "To be surrounded by this (art) and beautiful homes is not present anywhere in the world.
"I'm going to personally curate everything, so that's an integral part of the business plan."