Will Prefab Ever Catch On?

INSERT DESCRIPTIONHouses at the MOMA exhibit in New York City.

The Museum of Modern Art is currently running an exhibit on prefabricated homes that it hopes will change the way prefab houses are perceived.

Philip Kennicott writes in The Washington Post:

The architect who masters prefabricated housing — how to make homes that are well designed, mass-produced, affordable, and easy to build — may well go down in history as the last architect.

But as architects continue to come out with new prefab designs (Ikea even rolled out its own line), prefab continues to be more of a niche market than the thing that could put architects out of business.

We asked Allison Arieff, editor at large of Sunset magazine, author of The New York Times‘s By Design blog, and co-author of the books Prefab and Trailer Travel; and James Trulove, author of, most recently, New Sustainable Homes and Twenty-Five Apartments and Lofts Under 2,500 Square Feet, and co-author of Prefab Now, whether prefab will ever make it big, and what would happen if it did.

Q: Where do prefab houses stand in the U.S. real estate market?

Arieff: First, let’s distinguish between what I think you’re referring to — which is modern, architect-designed prefab — and standard-issue prefab, which slightly outpaces site-built housing in the United States.

Modern prefab has become extremely popular in the last five years, though the media interest in it exceeds the actual number of modern prefab homes built. Only 3 percent to 5 percent of homes in the U.S. are designed by an architect, so considerably fewer are architect-designed prefab. It’s a niche market.

Trulove: In general, prefab houses represent a very small segment of the housing market, although the popularity of such housing is clearly on the increase. My sense is that the appeal of prefab housing is strongest among younger generations who see prefab as not only very hip, but as perhaps more affordable as well. It is only recently that prefab housing emerged onto the real-estate radar after languishing for two or three decades after a burst of interest in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Q: What, if anything, is the housing crisis doing to prefab?

Arieff: The crisis has had a devastating impact on all housing sectors. I know one builder, for example, who laid off 66 of 68 employees. I believe there is an opportunity for prefab, however, because of what it can offer in the way of product differentiation.

Ask any builder and he’ll tell you he’s offering something different than his competitors. But a drive through the country tells a different story; there is an astonishing sameness to every subdivision out there. Not everyone wants a pseudo-Tudor with a three-car garage. Modern prefab is offering an attainable alternative, and that will give it a competitive advantage when things swing back.

Trulove: If anything, the current housing crisis will serve to lessen prefab’s appeal for two reasons. First, declining housing prices make all types of housing more competitive. Prefab is generally considered more affordable; although this may be somewhat of a myth because the ancillary costs — such as site preparation, transportation costs of prefab components to the site, options provided by the architect, and local contractor costs — can add substantially to the initial package.

But with existing housing prices down substantially, new prefab construction can actually be more expensive. Second, for prefab houses to be truly cost effective, they must be factory assembled in large quantities; this is unlikely in the current real estate market.

Q: What would push prefab beyond a niche market?

Arieff: A major commitment. Prefab has, time after time, been affected by what you could call “the curse of the prototype” — an amazing design is constructed once, maybe twice, but never again. In large part, this is because the economies of scale that make prefab so attractive can never be realized in these quantities.

If a major developer committed to building a significant number of these homes, those cost efficiencies would be realized. I don’t think modern prefab will ever constitute a majority of housing; in terms of market share, I do think it can be the Apple rather than the Microsoft.

Trulove: A substantial boom in demand created either through a natural disaster, where a large quantity of housing is destroyed (and assuming the occupants are spared), or through normal markets, where the cost of prefab housing becomes genuinely less expensive.

Q: If prefab did catch on, what would the economic implications be?

Arieff: The way houses are built today is tremendously inefficient; building waste accounts for at least half of our nation’s landfills. Prefab can reduce waste, shorten construction times, and also reduce the amount of time you’d have to carry a construction loan. I don’t see many negative economic implications.

And really, it’s almost impossible to have a discussion on the economics of housing without tying it to energy costs: prefab homes can have “no energy” systems built into them — meaning there are little or no utility costs, there’s lower water usage, etc.

Trulove: It’s hard to see how a prefab boom would be of such a magnitude as to have major economic implications.

Q: What does prefab do for the environment?

Arieff: It has the potential to do quite a lot. Green-prefab architect Michelle Kaufmann, for example, recently introduced a white paper highlighting the need for a universal sustainability-labeling standard (much like F.D.A. labels on food) that would empower homebuyers to make smarter, more sustainable homebuying decisions.

I think homebuyers are looking for this sort of information, and they will be expecting things like nontoxic paint and materials to be standard in new construction. Again, it’s a way that modern prefab can differentiate itself from other homebuilders who are doing woefully little in this area.

Trulove: Unquestionably, prefab construction eliminates a great deal of the material waste associated with on-site construction. Prefab construction is often associated with the use of recycled materials, and factory assembly can result in structures that are more tightly constructed, resulting in homes that are far more energy efficient.

On the downside, depending on where the prefab factory is located relative to the construction site, the energy costs associated with the transportation of the components can be very costly.

Q: What could prefab do for storm-prone areas?

Arieff: In the minds of many, prefab is associated with the mobile homes that are decimated in a tornado. But that sort of shoddy construction is not what we’re talking about here. A prefab home should fare no differently in a storm than a stick-built one.

Trulove: Not much; there are still storms!


Itinerant Carpenter

Nice point about the hyperbole, yet it is a good question to wonder why architectural practices don't publish plan books.

You can by house plans for a few hundred bucks, that are sold in big catalogs in Home Depot, Newstands, "houseplans.com" ... etc ...

But Architecture has generally felt as the above commenter that "each site is different". This is of course not true, each site is more like sites nearby than it is different.

Prefab and Predesigned are two sides of the same coin, and neither are embraced by the field of architecture.

Most of America's BEST communities and neighborhoods are in fact, "pattern book designed" - built by craftsmen builders from catalogs and patternbooks.

Sears homes were a part of this era.

It is a good question to ask why lumber companies don't return to the sears model as a way to add value to their comodity - but if we're honest about it, roof trusses, panelized walls etc ... are the standard now ... ie more prefab content than NOT in normal construction.

The conflation of modern style, and prefab method really trips up architects, and has ever since corbusier noticed that engineers were building beautiful objects which required no architects.

We have more architects than ever, but the work they do does not enter into the building process for the homes of most people.

The pattern book was the highwater mark for domestic architecture in the USA ... just visit any industrial era city and look at the old neighborhoods ...

A great freakonomics post would be on why successful architects enter competitions, but don't publish plan books!!

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Stacey

Did anyone consider the Sears Catalog Homes? It seems to me like these are prefab, and they enjoyed large popularity in the first half of the twentieth century.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sears_Catalog_Home

They certainly meet all of Kennicott's criteria: homes that are well designed, mass-produced, affordable, and easy to build. And while these have gone down in history, the architect certainly wasn't the 'last architect'.

Typical irresponsible journalistic hyperbole...

justin

There's a place down the road that makes houses on their site, and ships them in pieces and then finishes them on your lot. They are not mobile homes, and they do not share the absolutely unimaginative design that most of the new construction around Seattle prefers. It looks to me as their business has been steady the last couple years, and their designs range from mostly boring to an almost exotic look.

Geoff

The conundrum of prefab confuses me--ideally the whole point should be to commoditize housing, right? Make housing pieces interchangeable to the point where you can manufacture them bulk and reduce the overall cost of labor to homes. Right now, it seems that much of the prefab I see is just some designer's (or green freak's) pet project.

Disappointed at the lack of discussion around how prefab can be utilized in developing countries, though. Isn't there immense potential here?

Rob

See Christopher Alexander et alia, Pattern Language. My first criticism of pre-fab: They never discuss where is south (solar light and heat), and where is the view. There is almost never a discussion of siting. This is one of the most basic aspects of building a house. What fits in one place will not fit in another. If you build on several acres you have a great deal of freedom in how the house is sited. If you are building on a small lot you must work with a lot of restrictions. How will the windowing of next door houses impact each other. It you go into early last century Seattle houses the windows are carefully placed to preserve privacy for neighbors and yourself. Until prefab houses address these sorts of question a prefab house is a cookie cutter product not worthy of the lot on which it sits.

Itinerant Carpenter

As Arieff notes upfront, this discussion is about a style of architecture - which developers haven't been willing to touch since it doesn't seem to sell in the USA.

Why don't Americans like contemporary architecture?

Builders aren't "guys with a nailgun".

Toll Brothers owns half the automated wall framing lines in the USA ... but are the architects and archdruids going to praise Toll Brothers for the percent of prefab content in their McMainsions, or for investing in innovative construction technology?

MOMA's scholarship was great as far as architects are concerned but the prototype homes (home is a loose concept in this case) were laughable - especially the proposal for New Orleans - which was downright cynical.

Ikea has not developed a line of prefab houses, they simply co-brand and collaborate with big developers (Skanska) - who have residential divisions that use standard methods of construction in Europe based on prefabricated wall sections to construct houses.

Here is an example of standard construction in Sweden:

Swedish Prefab House Video.

Since this clearly works for big developers (like Skanska)in europe, what are the reasons it is so slow to grow in the US?

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AaronS

The problem with pre-fab houses is that too many of them look weird.

Consider what would happen if we could build a pre-fab that looked perfectly normal in size and shape. If that house were designed to be highly efficient, and the such, there might be a very large demand for a house that, though normal to the eye, was much cheaper to maintain.

Further, there is the point that pre-fab houses, because they are so precious, often cost much more than a standard house. You would think that since things could be pre-manufactured...but no.

To me, the real niche for pre-fab is creating housing for the poor of the world. Consider what would happen if in, say, three days, we could set up an "apartment building" for the very poor folks in Haiti or Africa...enabling them to move from huts/shacks to the increased safety of, say, a two-room apartment? The walls might be concrete, providing them with some safety from bullets/animals. Even the bed, for that matter, could be concrete--just throw a blanket on it, and they are no worse off than sleeping on the floor, perhaps.

Such facilities could have built-in potential for air conditioning or water.

But we want too much money, I think, to ever let our ideas be given to the truly poor.

Just my thoughts.

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Lloyd Alter

I have worked in the prefab business, and I think that the current economic meltdown spells it's end. Prefab has big overheads in plants and contract workers; on-site construction is a guy with a pickup truck, a skilsaw and a nailgun. When there is a boom, prefab has the advantage; in a recession labour is cheap and available and prefab's overhead and transport and crane costs kill it. It has been fun, but unfortunately, it is probably over.

Negative Nancy

Apparently James Trulove is Debbie Downer's new alias?

Mario C

A good article!

One thing left unspoken about small prefab vs. designer/McMansion style is, single vs. family occupancy. It is obvious a developer can fit two, or three, or a whole community of small prefabs in the kind of lot now reserved for one oversized mansion and sell for greater profits at the end of the day. But they don't.

Because the modern western family wants space. Space for dad to have his garage workshop, each teen/tween child to have their den of iniquity, maybe a grandmother or ne'er do well uncle to have their own rooms - I'm stereotyping a bit to make the point that McMansion development feeds a very isolationist instinct. We don't want to live alone - and single life is certainly a more efficient and esthetically satisfying one - but we don't want to live communally either.

And if the suburban lifestyle is about one thing, it's about having it both ways. We want all the pleasures of country life and all the convenience of city life. We want our family life but we want to be alone. And we want it at any cost.

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architect

9)

While adjacent sites within a subdivision may be more alike than different, we are not talking about one subdivision--much less two home-sites sitting side by side. By way of example... Jacksonville, FL is not St Paul, MN nor is it Tucson, AZ; all have drastically different climates, vernacular styles, and city-grid organizations. Likewise, material availability and skilled-trade labor vary greatly from region to region.

A plan book for a "good" Jacksonville home would be virtually useless for building a "good" home in the other two cities. The environments and the city-fabrics are drastically different. This is precisely why the white-box Modernist movement of the early 20th century failed. There is no one-size-fits-all design.

For much the same reason that you and your skilled-Carpenter brethren get certifications and join representative unions as professionals, in order to distinguish your work from that of the untrained weekend handyman, "Architecture" promotes intelligent, site-reactive design and dismisses plan books as amateur fodder.

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Re: the last architect

Unless we plan to replace all building types with pre-fab units (and wouldn't a pre-fab skyscraper be a sight to see), doubtful this would put out the profession. More likely, a shift towards pre-fab would create more jobs for architects, as the profession would have more relevance in home-building than it does currently within the developer-run industry.

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john w.

Again... not much discussion about the real value of prefabrication, which is, of course, economy of scale. The current economic meltdown has nothing whatsoever to do with prefab construction. Glossy architecture magazines doing the bidding of a few stylish modernist designers, and no one really examining the dead-end nature of single project prefab will spell, once again, it's untimely demise. Forget MKD's product line, because that's not what prefab is about, and the more time passes while architects fail to see the 8 million pound gorilla in room, the closer to failure that prefab as a delivery method sadly becomes. Prefabrication is about the P R O C E S S , and not the product. If you don't understand this much, you'll only do harm to the potential of this great approach by distracting consumers with dead-end products like (insert the first prefab design that comes to mind) instead of educating everyone as to what is most critical. The actual product that should be sold to developers and cities ready develop large areas of land is the P R O C E S S of prefabrication, and not its product. If you think prefab is about one-off, high design, single family homes then you just don't get it.

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