Prefab Confab: Revolution or Flash in the Pan?

A lot of the time we get so excited by the cool designs and vast possibilities of prefab that we forget about the kinks that still need to be worked out. Residential Architect talked to tons of experts and got their views. Martin Moeller (a senior VP at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC) rightly points out, "The vast majority of people still seem to want detached housing that is increasingly large and fulfills certain images about how to live comfortably." I. e., not prefab. But in our experience, these are often the same people who think Olive Garden is fine dining, the finest cup of coffee is served by Starbucks, and fine furniture comes from Pottery Barn. In other words, America's already a country with a chain mentality: we like products that aren't one-of-a-kind. So why the beef with prefab (which, as we've said before, is actually quite customizable)? All problems aren't at the consumer end, though....The interviewed architects see difficulties in shipping, distribution, and, of course, traditional manufacturers of prefab houses turning up their noses at modern designs. And one of the biggest concerns noted is in relating a prebuilt house to a specific site. How can local materials be used when manufacturing is centralized? As these two fine retro souls consider in regards to the Lambeth, London postwar house pictured above, how does a prefab home blend in with the rest of the built neighborhood as well as the natural environment? Prefab housing is touted (including by us) as an affordable way for young, trendy types to get modernist housing, but that assumes said hipsters can afford an appropriate plot of land. Prefab so far does little to address urban and high-density housing. Though TreeHugger wishes we were all-knowing, we don't have all the answers either. But there's intriguing food for thought in the questions raised by this fabulous article, which also features several case studies detailing potential paths for future prefab (including the Glidehouse and weeHouse). Below we've excerpted a couple of their thought-provoking quotations—from the practical to the commercial to the philosophical—and see the full article at ::residential architect [by KK]

Dan Rockhill
Professor of Architecture
University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kan.

"...Increasingly, the entry-level home buyer is hip, went to college, likes the urban life, and has a clear disdain for suburbia. The best analogy to prefab houses is the Mini Cooper—mass produced but with enough options to let the owners feel they have a custom automobile..."
Michael Pyatok, FAIA
Pyatok Architects
Berkeley, Calif.

"...As long as housing is treated as a commodity in a capitalist system, the technological advances that occur more often help the production end rather than the consumer end, and when they help both, it usually means a portion of the labor market somewhere has been hurt..."
Mark Simon, FAIA
Centerbrook Architects and Planners
Essex, Conn.

"This is an issue of class and perception. I don't think the current 'high design' will appeal to people who now use modular housing. As for upper-middle-class buyers, they are interested in many other issues beyond design—status, security, maintenance, convenience, ease of purchase, resale value..."
Kenneth Frampton
Ware professor of architecture at Columbia
University Graduate School of Architecture and Planning, New York City

"...The whole issue is marketing. Between mortgage companies, banks, the building industry, and the real estate industry, local bylaws are stacked against prefab. If that's not changed, housing will continue to be a fixed market."