Prefab Goes (Pre)Fabulous


Say the word prefab and most people squint their eyes, crinkle their nose and immediately think of trailer parks and ticky-tacky tract houses. Although those types of residential dwellings sometimes fall under the umbrella of modular/prefab housing and meet the needs and economic realities of many, the future of the much maligned genre is far more (pre)fabulous.

The idea of factory produced housing components, which are shipped and then assembled at a building site, is not a new one. The earliest known examples of modular housing units date back to the 1830s. But the notion didn't take hold until 1916, when mass retailer Sears Roebuck and Co. (Stock Quote: SHLD) introduced a line of “kit” houses that were ordered through their catalog and came with all the necessary homebuilding items including instruction booklets, numbered parts and even paint and nails.

Starting in the 1940s, maverick architects like Buckminster Fuller and contemporary architects like Richard Neutra and Pierre Koenig experimented with new technologies and materials to design decidedly modern structures intended to be inexpensive and easily replicated to meet the needs of the housing boom that followed WWII. Ironically, their designs were neither inexpensive to build nor appealing to a middle class or mass audience.

Modular and prefab housing quickly fell into an architectural purgatory as developers used the precepts to build mobile home parks and uninspired housing tracts that catered to the lowest common denominators of residential design but were affordable to middle class buyers.

More recently, prefab and modular housing practices have resurfaced as a viable and desirable form of residential building, largely due to shelter publications like Dwell magazine, which has long championed architects looking to elevate the technology to new and unexplored levels of efficiency and high design standards.

An increasing number of architects are flipping the stereotypes of modular and prefab housing on its head. San Francisco-based Clever Homes offers full design-build services with both kit and custom options. They use factory engineered components to construct modern residences with advanced technology and responsible building practices that, excluding land costs, average between $200 and $300 per square feet.

Those who prefer a more traditional architectural style can turn to Connecticut-based architect and modular miracle worker Douglas Cutler, who considers modular building systems “a Tinker-Toy set that you have to understand in order to work in that framework.”

And understand he does. Cutler’s eponymous firm can whip up a shingled Victorian or a center hall colonial or any other type of house from his extensive list of modular models, or he can custom design a 6,000+ square foot modular mansion. Cutler’s firm is so advanced and confident in their use of modular building techniques they recently floated a 4,000+ square foot modular mansion by barge to a private island off the coast of Connecticut, where is was then secured to its foundation (see photo, above).

Unfortunately, when the expense of land, land preparation and labor are added to the cost of factory-produced modules, prefab housing remains at the higher end of the cost spectrum in the United States. However, many believe that as the necessary infrastructure to support the prefab and modular housing sector begins to grow and the genre loses some of the mobile home stigma, the ability to mass produce major elements of a structure in a factory will not only increase the quality control, but bring the costs down by an economy of scale.

Some forward thinking companies are already creating communities using these types of innovative building practices. Swedish mass retailer Ikea has spun off a home building division called BoKlok, which has developed a handful of prefab and modular communities in Northern Europe and the UK. So who knows, maybe it won’t be long before a (pre)fabulous kit home can be ordered from Sears’ web site. Don’t laugh. It could happen.

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