Building a Urban Prefab: Some Things Never Change


Square Root Architecture + Design

Forty years ago, when prefab was new, the building inspectors backed up the local builders and demanded that drywall be ripped off so that they could check the insulation, plumbing and wiring. By the time they were through, there wasn't much left of the interior. Eventually systems were put in place for State by State approvals that still hobble the American prefab industry.

In Chicago, Jeff Sommers of Square Root Architecture is trying to build a green urban prefab. (He has designed the C3 Prefab, shown in this post) But according to the Chicago Tribune, it is the same old stuff.

"Safety is always the main concern," said Bill McCaffrey, director of public affairs for the city Department of Buildings. "Prefab homes must comply with Chicago building and inspection regulations. The biggest issues are the copper pipes and electric conduits behind walls."

The Tribune notes that for traditional projects,

Licensed installers and city inspectors visit the site at every stage ensuring that plumbing, mechanical and electrical components are up to code. But construction for the prefab is being done out of state -- at a factory in Middlebury, Ind.--so there is no city site to visit.

So the architect has taken a "hybrid approach" where they are drywalling 90% in the factory and leaving all of the plumbing and electrical connections visible so that they can be inspected. If on the outer walls, this will probably compromise the vapor barrier; wherever it is done, it will cause more work, more cost, and possibly a lousy finish.

Sommers is hoping that they will amend the building code in Chicago to make modular construction "an affordable option for green housing in Chicago." I hope he is not holding his breath; Prefab doesn't play well in places with strong construction unions; they don't like shipping the jobs out of town. But others like the idea;

Tim Heppner, a consultant on the Chicago Green Homes Program, said the time is right for prefab in Chicago.

"We are starting to see the problems of pollution and people are saying, 'Wait a second. All of the old ways of doing things got us into this mess. We are looking for different ideas and willing to try something new,' " Heppner said.

"I went over the drawings, and everything looks good from an environmental perspective." Heppner said of Sommers' design, calling the architect a "pioneer" in Chicago. "This project is an innovative look at an old idea and if it gets going will be a really affordable, energy-efficient house in Chicago, and that's what we are all looking for,"


Sommers makes a good case for his prefab, saying that it will improve water management and reduce electricity consumption by 50%. More in the Chicago Tribune, including lots of quotes from Michelle Kaufmann, who says "To think that the best way to build is on site is like saying cars should be built in driveways. It doesn't make sense."

More on Treehugger:
Sisters for Sustainability: Michelle Kaufmann's Green Prefab for Nuns in Denver
Modern Prefab On The Ropes: Michelle Kaufmann Packs It In
Zeta Communities: Net Zero Energy Urban Prefabs That May Actually Work

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Tags: Architecture | Construction | Green Building