The world of prefab and modular homes.

Prefab is not a fad

Link to Prefab is not a fad

Yesterday we covered a slideshow essay at Slate that criticized the current "prefab fad." Rybczynski has a 3 part indictment:

"unpopular, expensive and divorced from industrial production".
We're not sure whether he's paying attention.

As for "unpopular", Modernist homes (prefab or otherwise) are aimed at a specific audience:

"Where are all these people who live in cool lofts and spaces in the city supposed to go when they move to the country? They certainly don't want to go live in a colonial-style house." (Robert Luntz of Resolution: 4, quoted in Builder Online)

It's unlikely that modernist prefab will sweep away the dominant preference for traditional homes. But it could easily become a profitable (self-sustaining) niche. Our favorite example is the one that we (Peter and Scott) are using to create and edit this post: the Macintosh still has less than 10% overall market share but represents a thriving business that continues to dominate several niche markets.

Prefab doesn't just mean modernist, e.g. info_smallHive Modular offers a (mostly) traditional facade, info_smallEmpyrean's Deck House and Acorn are classic "post and beam", and the "traditional" modular housing industry is growing.

The current crop of prefab architects want to make "good design" more affordable.

"Most architects working in prefab are trying to create standard designs, to reduce the cost and risk to the client, and bring the services of talented architects to smaller houses." (Lloyd Alter on Treehugger, quoted in May)
"While her first customers tended to fit the stereotype of the Prius-driving, NPR-listening eco-consumer, Kaufmann is increasingly fielding inquiries from people who just want an attractive, affordable house." (From an article on Michelle Kaufmann in July.)

Last point: prefab is not "divorced from industrial production". Many of the companies we cover have built their own factories and most others are working closely with existing factories

Has the prefab industry achieved its goals? No. Is it headed in the right direction? We think so.

Related Posts:
   1. NPR interviews Slate's prefab skeptic (Nov 01, 2007)
   2. Slate: The Prefab Fad (Aug 27, 2007)
7 comments, 0 trackbacks (URL) , 
Jennifer on August 28, 2007 at 8:31 a.m.
The sad fact is that in most of the U.S., "affordable" housing is only sustainable with local & fed'l government subsidies, not the free market. That prefab housing could somehow be the answer to the lack of affordable housing has always been a pipe dream. Prefabs aren't cheaper than the conventional home, nor should they be. Manufactured housing aka mobile homes are cheaper b/c they get a "subsidy" in the sense of being exempt from wildly variable local building codes and inspectors. If modernist prefab manufacturers could figure out a way to build their homes as multiples of double-wides, and slap a chassis on the bottom to get the building code exemption, they might just get somewhere!
Lloyd Alter on August 28, 2007 at 12:30 p.m.
jennifer siegel is offering a version of a single and doublewide, but the real problem in North America is that if you try to build without vinyl or formaldehyde, costs go up. There is also a serious cultural disconnect going on- last summer the sustain minihome was in a high class trailer park and the other trailer owners didn't get it; bring anyone else in to see it and all they saw was the trailer park. Until we can look at the land use and build eco-villages out of green single and doublewides, it will never happen. having a place to put it is more important than having a good green prefab design.
Scott Lawton (Prefabcosm) on August 28, 2007 at 6:30 p.m.
Thanks for the comments!

I'm not sure whether the free market even enters into the equation given the stranglehold of local zoning laws. In any case, my approach to these issues is very pragmatic: don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Pursue incremental progress: more affordable, more green, more aesthetic.

As an engineer, I'm pretty sure that moving ever larger amounts of construction into the factory can play an important role. But, to echo Lloyd, the ultimate change has to come in what sort of housing people want to pay for (and live next to).
John Wimmer on December 12, 2007 at 5:05 p.m.
If only considering one-off projects (manufacturer's catalog item or custom) to compete in the current market of on-site, stick-built homes, prefab homes (sectional modular or panelized) will NOT be more cost effective. Considering local zoning issues, regional labor union strength, and the complicated logistics of product delivery from plant to site an argument CAN NOT be made for cost effectiveness. I'm actually rather surprised that none of the comments here, or at other websites (Inhabitat often entertains contrarian viewpoints from a certain blog poster) really address the true value of prefab construction methods, which is clearly its ability to be scalable. It's not a matter of a homebuyer thinking, "hmmm... shall I go stick-built or prefab... I just don't know", but rather it's a matter of a developer, a non-profit, or a governmental body building MULTIPLE units of similar type. This is where the curve shoots upward for prefab, and stick-built production flatlines. Think multiple unit developments either at the full neighborhood scale or a pocket type microdevelopment of a few units that might share common outdoor space.

If Rybcynski is correct about one thing, it's that the tendancy of the architectural design community to prefer austere and elusive esthetics acquired from the modernist academy. The overall appearance is elitist at least in an intellectual way, and to a large percentage of American homebuyers this is big deterrent. Though I adore these tidy specimens of crisp modernism, I know that the industry overall is poorly served by allowing these Dwell magazine prizewinners to champion the national cause. Please know that the homes showcased in both of Sherri Koones' books, and the home built by Michael Buchanan and featured on the Bob Vila show and in Buchanan's book offer more of what the majority of American homebuyers will prefer, and this is actually great news for the modernists.
Scott Lawton (Prefabcosm) on December 12, 2007 at 9:41 p.m.
John: thanks for weighing in. I agree that a developer (private or public) might have more incentives to go prefab than an individual homebuyer. However, that doesn't seem to be the trend so far. Is it really just "stuck in their old ways" or is there a bigger barrier?

We haven't (yet!) covered Buchanan's PreFab Home though did cover Koones's Prefabulous and some videos from Bob Vila.
John Wimmer on December 17, 2007 at 2:38 p.m.

Unfortunately, the trend you're referring to won't divert it's course until we begin to see much more of what MKD is doing in the state of Colorado, and what's been going on in London for some time now. I honestly see no cost advantage to choosing prefabration over a site-built home if the homeowner plans to build on an urban site, and especially if the homeowner desires something other than the usually awful catalog selections that manufacturers typically offer. Single owner sale + urban lot + non-catalog custom plan = no measurable savings.

Prefabrication really makes sense when one considers the entire purpose of the object as created by an industrial process. Industrial process generally implies mass production of identical component parts with a high degree of precision and low tolerance for anomoly. Considering the massive overhead carried to equip an industrial process, the numbers don't add up until there is high enough revenue-generating output. I believe prefabrication, whether sectional modular or panilized, will really pay off when developers see its value in clustered developments either 2-3 in number in close proximity, or entire blocks or neighborhoods. There is simply NO WAY that production housing can compete with prefabrication when building multiple units per development. The materials acquisition (b/c of small on-site storage capabilities) and labor cost alone would sink a conventional builder, and with our desperate need to retard low-density sprawl and reinvigorate our metropolitan cores prefabrication deserves a serious look. Long live those who continue to believe that well-built and well-designed homes can be truly affordable to those who are the most in need.
J. Kolos on November 05, 2008 at 12:09 p.m.
Well one Giant pre-fab Corporation appears to be no more. A sudden surprise, but phones say offices closed, personnel were asked to leave. What happened?? Empyrean International, LLC a pre-fab leader in the Dwell House Concept has suddenly evidently gone into shut-down. Hopefully, the owner Patrick Gilrane will make an official announcement. A bunch of dedicated workers, some with logivity of 40 plus years are very shocked and sad.
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