Less is definitely more in Prefabulous Small Houses (book review)

prefabulous small houses
© Prefabulous small houses

There are certain things that push our TreeHugger buttons, including sustainable design, energy efficiency and prefab, because it can help achieve the previous two. When Sheri Koones published her last book, Prefabulous World, I complained that there were so many very big monster homes in the country, even on the cover, and that it is really hard to call that sustainable or efficient in energy or material use. So this time around she hits yet another button, size, with Preafabulous Small Houses. Robert Redford explains in the introduction why small is such a big deal:

This book advocates for smaller houses, which is a strong trend in this country. Smaller houses reduce wasted space that most people don’t need or use. Smaller, better-built houses teach us to curb our appetite for energy and lessen our need to build, heat, cool, and maintain that extra space we don’t need or even want. Building smaller, along with building houses prefabricated—in the process using less time, fewer materials, and using both more efficiently— is the sanest and wisest recipe for home construction, for now and for the future.

This are not tiny houses; they start at 350 square feet and go up to just over 2,000. Sheri writes:

These houses demonstrate how a dwelling built with smart construction techniques can provide all the room a family might need. And they show how building an energy-efficient, healthy environment beats living in a large drafty house that contains rooms that may rarely, if ever, be used. Saving on building materials for a smaller house not only saves money but also helps preserve the environment.

plans and sidebar© Prefabulous small houses

There are a lot of interesting homes shown, some of which have been on TreeHugger already, including two from Maine's Go Logic. But perhaps the best stuff in the book is found in the sidebars, where a feature or material is examined in depth. There is also always a plan and a list of green and energy efficient features. There is a lot to learn in these sidebars, and a lot of detail in those lists.

exterior little house on the ferry© Trent Bell

The book ends with a useful glossary and a long list of materials from every house in the book- this is a very useful resource for anyone thinking of building a house, everything is there.

Sheri’s books focus on the prefab-ulous, and there are more and more prefab options these days than ever before. Sheri is really committed to them, and noted in an interview that "If you're going to write about energy-efficient, sustainable homes, it really has to be prefab." That's perhaps a bit of an overstatement; prefabrication is not ideal in every situation. She also notes that "Today, almost anything that can be built on-site can be built prefab." Fortunately, the reverse is true, and almost any design in this book can be built conventionally. That’s important, because prefab doesn’t always make sense when buildings are very small.

Marfa wee house© Marfa Weehouse/ Alchemy Architects

When I was in the prefab business I found that the smaller the home, the less cost-effective prefab manufacturing became, and that below a thousand square feet it was not competitive with site-built. That’s because the administrative, overhead and transportation costs become a much bigger proportion of the cost of the project, the manufacturer's profit gets very small and it can become hard to even get a factory to price a really small home. Just think of the crane alone; the travel and setup time is the same whether it is setting one module or five, and it could cost a few thousand dollars. Amortizing that over a tiny house can get really expensive. So think of the book as a great selection of fabulous small homes and don’t get too hung up on the prefab part.

Also, looking at the great list of Prefabulous books on her site, I hope Sheri will consider a Prefabulous multifamily book. That’s where some really interesting stuff is being done all over the world.

Tags: Less Is More | Living With Less | Small Spaces


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