It doesn’t make sense. That’s the rational reaction when you watch the construction of a stick-built house. Yet another dumpster full of waste material on its way to the local land-fill; the structure’s exposure to the elements; the endless coming and goings of the army of sub-contractors; the inevitable delays that come with too many cooks in the kitchen (and the bathroom, and the den, and the attic….).
What does make sense is prefabrication. Few argue with the apparent benefits of prefabricating houses; manufacturing and assembling components in a controlled environment, exploiting economies of scale and minimizing construction time. Better quality, shorter lead times, lower costs. And yet prefabs (as the homes themselves are often called) continue to be viewed by most people as the quirky exception to the rules of home construction.
However, times are changing and we must all be prepared to reinvent ourselves; including the construction industry. Is the age of the prefab about to dawn?
Maybe that’s what Sears, Roebuck & Company thought in 1908 when it began shipping pre-cut ‘kit’ houses, sold by catalogue throughout the United States. When the last kit was despatched a third of a decade later, the company had sold homes to almost 100,000 customers; the equivalent of 3,125 a year. The age of prefabs had yet to dawn.
Perhaps the Second World War would change things. ‘No homes for heroes’ was the reality in every blitzed city in post-War Britain. Prefabs were one solution to the appalling housing shortage that awaited returning soldiers. Bomb sites became building sites. In-fill, the dream of today’s urbanists, became a reality.
Little clusters of wood-framed, flat-roofed, single-story, two bedroom ‘cottages’ replaced the traditional brick buildings that had been flattened by Hitler’s bombs.
Poorly insulated with only 600 square feet of space, these homes were expected to last 10 years. Sixty-two years later, the UK government designated 21 prefabs on the Excalibur Estate as being of historic significance. One or two are still occupied by their original owners; most have been renovated several times, a remnant of the 150,000 prefabs that were built. Hardly a vision for the future.
America’s post-War housing crisis was handled differently. In 1945, the Levitt family used mass-production techniques to construct new homes. Every element of the building process was systematized and honed to lever the maximum economies of scale. The numbers speak for themselves. Four thousand acres of land acquired 25 miles from Manhattan; 17,400 homes built; 82,000 families housed; 150 identical two-bedroom homes completed every week.
Long Island’s Levittown, the first sprawling suburb in America, was the antithesis of ‘in-fill’. Two more Levittowns followed, both in Pennsylvania. Like the British ‘prefabs’, Levittown offered many of those returning from the War their first experience of home ownership. The cheaply built, mass-produced ‘boxes’ were recognized for what they were; starter homes.
It was the emergence of trailer park living during the 1950s that, on the one hand, created a new, highly profitable market for prefabricated construction and, on the other, stigmatized the concept for decades to come. For many, this was truly affordable housing. The ‘pad’, complete with utility ‘hookups’, was rented and on it was placed a factory-built ‘trailer’ between 12 and 16 feet wide and up to 60 feet long. Between 1959 and 2007, over 12 million ‘manufactured homes’ were built in the United States. That’s an average of almost a quarter million units every year for 49 years.
In 1973, the peak year of production, 580,000 units were trucked along the nation’s highways, from factory to home site. But by 2007 that number had fallen to 95,000, or a sixth of the peak year. Was the dream of the prefab fading?
Not if you read Dwell Magazine or were frustrated by shortages in skilled construction labor or appalled by the apparent waste and rising material costs inherent in stick-built housing throughout the first decade of the new century.
In January 2003, Dwell Magazine challenged 16 architects to design and construct a prefabricated home for $200,000 or less. In editor Allison Arieff’s words; “I learned that countless modern architects and designers had tried their hand at prefab—from Le Corbusier to Frank Lloyd Wright to Philippe Starck—yet their efforts had resulted in a series of noble failures”. Here was a chance for a group of less well-known designers to succeed where others had failed. The winning home, designed by Resolution:4 Architecture, opened (after much blood, sweat and tears) on July 10th, 2004. It’s a modern, airy, well-lit home, seductive and uncompromising on its large wooded lot. But forget Henry Ford. As Ms. Arieff is first to admit, this was the equivalent of a BMW. She recommends a construction budget of between $125 and $200 per square foot (depending on location) – excluding, of course, the cost of the land on which to build it.
Mass production on a scale that would enable prefabs to out-compete stick-built construction in terms of cost, while at the same time avoiding the accusation of dreary ‘ticky-tacky’ homogeneity, remains elusive. Perhaps the age of the prefab will never dawn; at least not in the way that the builders of Levittown (or any of its smaller versions) might have dreamed. Construction technology will no doubt continue to develop and become more modular and pre-assembled in nature thereby reducing cost, improving quality and eliminating waste. But will the majority of us be living in truly prefabricated homes in the immediate future?
Maybe we should think of prefabs as special buildings that fit certain circumstances better than conventional forms of construction. For instance, where repetition and simplicity prove to be virtues rather than failings. Fifteen years ago I had the pleasure of staying in a simple cabin on Lake Martin, Alabama. The cabin was one of many that had been built by the Russell Corporation on its considerable land holding around the wooded edge of one the largest man-made lakes in the USA. Families would rent the cabins on leases long enough to encourage a sense of ownership and establish the Lake as a weekend and Summer getaway. Each cabin was, in today’s parlance, ‘light on the land’, sited in a clearing rather than on a lot and was comfortable rather than conspicuous. Lake Martin, in those days, was a spectacular playground that ensured that the cabins were appropriately inconsequential and simply a means by which generations could come together to play.
In these more straightened times, one can easily imagine a return to this type of lakeside getaway, where the natural environment dwarfs the built environment and the lake side is shared by all. Architectural repetition and simplicity become virtues, along with living off the grid and minimizing one’s carbon footprint.
And that may be the future for prefabs; minimizing the impact of humans as they enjoy spectacular recreational settings. Using more and more efficient manufacturing techniques to reduce waste. Creating shelter quickly and efficiently in order to control costs and enable recreational developers to construct a critical mass of buildings in the minimum time possible. Maybe not attainable in 2010 but something to dream about over the coming years.