August 2008

Omit the “pre” from prefab: There’s nothing preliminary about the term. If you have any doubt that prefab’s moment has arrived, ask the educated general audience that reads Dwell and other shelter magazines or watches HGTV—many have become passionate devotees of the idea. Hundreds, no thousands, of true believers poured through the doors of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on July 15, drawn to the opening of a major show devoted to the subject, entitled, Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling. Five actual structures, illustrative of the most provocative ideas in house making today, offered a counterpoint to drawings and models inside the museum, which told the rich history of alternative home-building methods.

Photo © André Souroujon

As current as it seems, ironically, the notion has attracted interest for centuries. A bit of clarification is in order, however. As curator Barry Bergdoll points out in his essay accompanying the exhibition, “The history of off-site fabrication of buildings and the history of an architectural culture of prefabrication are distinct.” The first stretches back to early recorded history, while the second gained currency after the Industrial Revolution and increased with 20th-century Modernists confronting the challenges of housing for burgeoning worker populations. Today, after economic and market-based vicissitudes, our interest has risen to fever pitch.

Home Delivery and recent scholarship indicate that both prefabrication and experiments in off-site fabrication have stirred many of our greatest designers and inventors to action. Consider Thomas Edison’s 1908 experiments in New Jersey with poured-concrete houses; Buckminster Fuller’s aluminum Dymaxion house, suspended from a single mast; Paul Rudolph’s multifamily experiments; and the multiplicity of ideas for single-family houses of Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Partnerships with industry—with a capital “I”—however, have offered the most promise for the most people: Sears, Roebuck, and Company managed to sell 75,000 precut houses by the 1920s; and later, preconstructed travel trailers made by various, smaller companies came to ascendancy. By the late 1940s, inexpensive, cheaply constructed trailer homes accommodated 50,000 families per year, becoming the major form of nonsubsidized affordable housing in the United States, with 9 million documented by the year 2000. Improperly tied to foundations, too often cheaply constructed, mobile homes have provided fodder for comedians while masking this country’s intrinsic needs for shelter.

Architects in the 1970s and ’80s, enamored of off-site manufacture abroad, looked to Scandinavia, particularly to Finland, where factory-built houses achieved high-quality standards and wide acceptance. What they found, however, on attempting the Nordic experiment in the United States, was a barrage of socioeconomic impediments that included unions unwilling to relinquish their traditional roles in plumbing or electrical oversight, for example, as well as building codes that were slow to adapt to change. The crafts held the industry in a virtual stranglehold.

Why the renewed excitement today? In recent research, McGraw-Hill Analytics cites several compelling reasons for prefabrication. Included in its findings are reduced construction times and improved productivity, better quality control and ultimate durability, construction safety, reduced labor costs, and reduced environmental impact. Unstated in this list are the reasons that draw architects long-interested in modular design and prefabrication, such as Ray Kappe, the founder of SCI-Arc, who has collaborated with a prominent developer of prefabricated residences in Los Angeles—a company called Living Homes. Kappe’s solutions manage to offer contemporary flexibility for homeowners and a true spatial sense with handsome, high-quality houses strongly committed to sustainable design. Sustainability and controlled customization derived from digital design come with the zeitgeist for a new generation of home buyers.

Today, excitement comes from a future in which digital fabrication and robotics promise a brave new world of home-building, custom-tailored with minimal expenditure of materials and methods. In an age in which Volkswagen already produces complex, entire automobiles in a transparent, robotic factory in Dresden, the leap to making human shelter in a highly controlled, digitally manipulated environment does not lie far behind.

With human societies continuing to grow, and the population of the United States alone projected at 450 million persons by 2050, our need for shelter demands that we look beyond stick-built construction and sticky, traditional crafts to sleeker, quicker, more environmentally friendly solutions. Though the idea has knocked around the culture, prefab and premanufacturing offer promising new outlets for architectural design energy, enhanced quality control, creative construction techniques, and a chance to avoid much of the waste inherent in earlier processes. While admitting that off-site construction arrives with its own questions to solve, including those intractable local codes, premanufactured housing has moved past the trailer home and left our preconceptions in the dust, allowing us to realize that there’s nothing “pre” about prefab any more. It’s here, now, and to a new generation, simply fab.

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