Architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Walter Gropius all attempted to bring prefab to the masses. Yet even the most cleverly designed modular prototypes have been sunk by higher-than-average costs, fickle consumer demands, existing building codes, and unanticipated maintenance issues. Despite this history, a new generation of architects is finding a way to make prefabrication work in the new economy, often promoting its inherent sustainability.
A confluence of events—the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the “small house” movement, the green-building movement, and even the recession—has created a fertile environment in which prefabs can flourish. Modular-home companies have sprouted nationwide, helmed by architects, artists, and builders alike. The trick has been convincing the marketplace that the new generation of prefabs is cost-effective and accessible to homebuyers.
It is almost a given that contemporary prefab houses are sustainable. The factory production process is by its nature precise and produces less waste, proponents say, especially when cutting-edge technologies (such as computerized milling machines) are employed. It is also relatively easy to specify recycled-content materials, sustainably harvested woods, and low-flow toilets in a factory-built house.
“I think prefabrication and sustainability are sort of one and the same,” says Paul Masi, AIA, principal of Bates Masi + Architects in Sag Harbor, N.Y. “By using prefabricated elements you can not only cut down on the waste, but you’re building with precise tools, and you’re not out there in the snow and rain, so you can be very efficient.”
Prefab proponents say that the practice removes site-specific variables and can help keep budgets under control. Michelle Kaufmann, AIA, LEED AP, principal of Michelle Kaufmann Studio in Oakland, Calif., and coauthor of Prefab Green, has written that factory-produced elements frequently prove to be not just cost-effective, but reliably so. When she and her husband designed their own Bay Area house, it took about 14 months to construct it onsite using traditional materials and methods. Seizing a professional opportunity, Kaufmann later worked with a factory to replicate her exact house as one of several prefab designs she’s since marketed. It took only four months to build, and cost about 15 percent less than the traditionally constructed original.
Like cars or any other commodity, prefab houses are certainly more cost-effective when produced at a higher volume, which may not be feasible for most architects, especially when faced with clients demanding customization. The key to making prefabs work, some say, is to focus less on the “kit home” model of yesteryear and more on incorporating prefabricated elements.
This approach has worked for Bates Masi, which has used prefabrication for a couple custom residences and is poised to do even more. The firm designed a handsome 3,200-square-foot house in Montauk, N.Y., that used a prefabricated foundation, panel siding, and built-ins, which minimized construction debris and toxins such as concrete foundation tar. “We actually went through and priced out the different options [prefab vs. traditional site-built] and, surprisingly, they came out very close,” Paul Masi says. “What was really attractive about it was that it took cost off the table.”
Masi says that incorporating prefabricated elements allows him to be more involved in the building process as an architect and have a closer connection to the craft. “It’s allowed us more control,” he says. “There was more of a direct personal relationship between us and the fabricator.”