Friday, June 24, 2011


Interesting article summing up Prefab in the Times:

Squeezing Costs, Builders Take New Look at Prefab

Often the word prefab conjures images of inexpensive and poorly built structures like trailer homes. But proponents of prefab, many of whom shudder at the moniker, say that modular design done well is anything but cheaply built. A modularly constructed building uses the same materials as a traditional one. But because it is made in a factory, workers are not battling the elements and can construct it more soundly and with less waste, proponents say.

“The quality of what you can assemble is infinitely higher on a factory floor,” said the hotelier AndrĂ© Balazs, who considered building a luxury modular hotel atop the High Line in Manhattan, but abandoned the idea when he found it too costly in New York.

Nearly all contemporary buildings rely on some element of prefabrication, with facades largely constructed off-site and windows and doors standardized. Even “bathroom pods,” bathrooms built and assembled off-site, are becoming increasingly common. But the idea of building most of the building in a factory and setting it atop a foundation simply has not taken off.

Developers also benefit from time savings. Speed aside, builders have the ability to create a production schedule that minimizes downtime. In traditional construction, a contractor is overseeing work by various subcontractors who work for separate entities and on their own schedules. Weather can cause delays and so can any number of unforeseen factors like waits for zoning approvals. But in a factory, all the various tradesmen from the plumbers to the carpenters to the electricians work for the factory, and all the pieces come together simultaneously. 

Prefabricated construction has been poised to take off for a while now. It's logical - fabricating something in a factory gives you a lot more control over construction quality and methods than building things on site. If you've ever been to a job site, you know how messy and slipshod everything looks. Prefab has been especially put forward as a way to bring affordable modernist homes to the general public. Yet, such homes are exceedingly rare. Why?

Well, one of the advantages of mass-production is a reduction in cost. Yet prefab houses actually cost more than site-built. I thin the reasons for this are straightforward. Unlike, say, a piece of electronics that everyone can buy, only a tiny amount of people can afford to build a house in any given year. So you're already dealing with a vanishingly small pool of consumers. On top of that, there is a vast amount of prefab options. When I go to Target to buy a piece of electronics, there are a few brands and maybe a dozen models. So of that small sliver of people who can afford to build a house, odds are that with all the manufacturers and designers out there in the market, each designer has the potential to sell maybe a dozen or so homes. That's not nearly enough for any economies of scale. Plus, homes last for decades, so once it is sold, there are no repeat customers. You are competing against what you've already sold, and unlike electronics manufacturers, you cannot count on planned obsolescence.

Now my solution is this - if there were one prefab company that sold all the prefab houses in America, it might have a chance at selling enough houses to make it competitive with site-built. That does not preclude multiple designers - this company would just be a clearinghouse of sorts for architects to sell their work. It would assemble all the designs of a variety of architects, allowing it to take advantage of economies of scale. It would be similar to Etsy , but rather than a single source for artists to sell their work, it would be a single source for architects to sell their designs for construction.

Of course, this would require a fairly large degree of cooperation among architects and designers with such a company. But the advantages would be many - there would be a single source for people to go to get a prefab house, it would be cheaper, there would still be a variety of designers. As long as there are multiple competing companies, however, it is a guarantee that none of them will be able to do enough volume to realize the advantages and make a profit.

Prefab Houses at Inhabitat

Prefab houses at Jetson Green

1 comment:

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