Tiny, Prefab $50,000 Homes Could Make Outrageously Expensive Cities Affordable

The YMCA’s Y:Cube homes are portable, cheap, and can be built in an instant. Stack them up on top of each other and you have a whole community.

London is the most expensive city in the world, and a big part of that because of its housing: In some neighborhoods, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is over $4,000. Not surprisingly, it’s pretty hard for young people with little or no income to find a place to live, but a new set of ultra-low-cost homes from the YMCA may help.


The YMCA’s Y:Cube houses are cheap in part because they’re so quick to build; the home is fully constructed and finished in a nearby factory, and then can be set in place almost instantly.

“It’s about speed and process,” says Ivan Harbour, a partner at Roger Stirk Harbour + Partners, the architects for the development. “It’s not reduced quality. The same money–probably actually more money–is spent on the quality of the materials and finishes.”

Special timber-framed panels called Insulshell, which architects also used to build the Velodrome for the London Olympics, make the building not only simple to construct, but so airtight it takes almost no energy to heat.

The tiny homes–a little less than 300 square feet for a bedroom, living room, kitchen, and bathroom–are each intended for only one person, but they’re also designed to easily stack on top of each other to form a community. They’re reminiscent in some ways of the micro-apartments that have been popping up in other expensive cities, like New York and San Francisco. But it sounds like the Y:Cube homes will be even cheaper.

In Southwest London, the YMCA plans to build 36 of the units as a prototype. Young people who have been living at the YMCA’s hostel, going through a two-year education and employment program, will have the chance to rent one of the apartments below the market rent.

The YMCA has leased the land for five years, and if it needs need to move at the end of the lease, the homes can come along: Each can be picked up by a crane, just as it was installed, and easily carted off to another location (though that may be a little jarring to residents). Since the homes are about 40% cheaper to construct than a traditional building, at about £30,000, the project will pay for itself in 15 years. The YMCA will be able to finance construction using social investors rather than grants.


The architects carefully planned each aspect of the exterior, from the gate to the front door, so that the new residents can connect with neighbors. “We’re trying to create places where people can go and feel like they’re part of the community,” says Harbour. “That whole sequence of spaces is essential so people don’t feel like they’ve been ghettoized.”

If the model works, the YMCA plans to roll out more locations. The architects point out that the same construction methods could be used to save costs and improve sustainability for everything from larger homes to schools. The portability of the buildings also makes them well-suited for land that can only be developed temporarily, like brownfield sites.

“This technology could be used for almost anything,” says Andrew Partridge, an architect on the project. “It’s just at the very beginning. This is a great place to start–filling a great need in London right now.”


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.