Prefabricated housing, an all-purpose term that is used to describe any home that is built partly off-site, is enjoying a revival, thanks to a handful of innovative architects and hip shelter magazines. In its new incarnation, prefab is catching the eye of design-conscious consumers who appreciate its style and efficiency. Now, “built in a factory” means lower cost and higher-quality building components than many site-built homes. Most importantly, prefab and sustainability are a great match. Green prefab offers a more efficient way of building a home. People want homes that are affordable, enduring, healthy, and now more than ever, environmentally sound.
Prefabricated housing is not new. In 1906, the Aladdin Company began selling basic house kits, and between 1908 and 1940, catalog giant Sears, Roebuck and Company sold more than 100,000 prefab home kits to Americans. Prefab construction processes have been used to create office buildings, schools, and homes for many decades.
After World War II, with many returning veterans in need of inexpensive housing, government-subsidized prefab was embraced as a quick and economical way to meet the increased demand for homes in the United States. As time passed, however, and consumer tastes changed, prefab homes became linked in the public mind with bad design and inferior quality. Today, most people associate prefab with mobile homes that blow away in high winds.
What Is Prefab?
For centuries, architects and craftsmen have traditionally built homes piece by piece, dealing with unreliable weather, inconsistent labor quality, and other obstacles. When materials arrive on-site, they are usually stored outdoors, exposed to the elements. Subcontractor delays and price fluctuations are considered common.
Like the automotve industry did early in the twentieth century, the home-building trade soon realized that pre-built components were a necessity to make construction more efficient. Housing parts in assembly-line production could make building quicker and easier. From roof trusses to prefabricated windows, these premade components could be mass-produced and shipped to the site at much lower costs.
Prefab is a catchall term, but fundamentally, it defines any structure that is manufactured in a standard size and can be shipped and assembled elsewhere. Almost all homes today contain some elements of prefabrication, since items like roof trusses, stair treads, doors, and windows are created off-site. Today, many different kinds of prefab homes are readily available on the market: the kit home, the panelized home, the manufactured home, and the modular home, for example. These homes all require land and site work such as grading, foundations, and utilities installation.
As we look ahead to the future, it is inspiring to realize that an increasing number of people agree: green is good. A generation ago, if the public thought about green design at all, they imagined geodesic domes with space-age windows. But as awareness of ecological issues has increased, so have the questions we ask about how and where we live. How are our homes constructed? Is there lead in the paint we use? How can we reduce waste and conserve energy in our homes? Many of our current buildings are making us sick. What is the cost of our health? How does this translate into how we design and build? We have a marvelous opportunity to rethink the way we build and the way we live. Sustainable living is no longer merely the concern of a few; it can now be a healthy lifestyle for many.