Letters from Sweden - PreFab is DEAD
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Shocking headline intended to get your attention? Guilty. But its true.
Modern PreFab burst on to the scene 10 years or so ago. Before we knew it everybody was a-buzz about PreFab. Magazine articles, newspapers, cable tv shows. Lots of ideas were being tossed out, and some houses were being built. Everybody was hopeful - this is it! We might finally see modern homes priced competitive to standard production homes, all thanks to PreFab. And then just like every PreFab cycle that came before, it was over - again - with little to show for it. Yes, some nice houses were built, and yes, a few are still being built. And capping it off MOMA had a PreFab exhibit, one that should have embarrassed any architect. It was the crown jewel to announce that PreFab had arrived! But was actually more of a postscript on why it had died, again. So here we are on the other side of the cycle and what have we learned? The housing industry is largely unchanged. Design of status quo homes has not improved. Modern is still not readily available. This time around lets just see it for what it is. Call a spade a spade. PreFab is dead.
Colin Davies has given the best account of this repeating cycle in his book The PreFabricated Home. He examines a dozen attempts by architects to reinvent housing via PreFabrication. Consistently the architects conceive of brilliant "systems" which defy established standards and fail to achieve a sustainable volume. While the architects repeatedly flailed at reinventing house building the modular industry quietly reached a sustainable market share. But architects have always discounted this industry because they did not consider it architecture.
Was this round any different? Again we've seen marginal use of several unconventional construction methods. I myself have been involved with pre-engineered steel building systems applied to homes, and shipping container based houses. Others have adapted aluminum industrial framing systems. Others have made houses cast of concrete in forms CNC milled from blocks of styrofoam. And incredibly we've seen puzzle like houses made from little pieces of plywood proposed as a solution. All very endlessly clever, and all hopelessly fated to not change the way houses are built. They fight established building codes, they confound local tradespeople, they frustrate the very people who build houses. As you would expect builders are mostly disinterested in learning a new way to build a house, and their customers are mostly unwilling to pay them to learn it over again too.
But there were other approaches - those that attempted to leverage the existing modular industry to build a new kind of house. There was some success here, and I too worked on some projects in this realm as well. Here we saw modern designs using modular construction, for the first time factories building a house that was modern or green or both, using the tried and true method of off-site assembled modules. But it was no panacea - here the problem was different. The designers struggled against the momentum of the industry. They wanted to introduce new materials and new methods, but the factories and their economy of scale wanted to do what they had always done. It was possible to very carefully find common ground and make a new and modern design, but then at the heart of it little had changed. Costs were not equal to the rest of the factory's conventional output, and the result was largely superficial. Many potential customers walked away disappointed. Another option they could not afford. Owning the factory seemed like an option that would enable the architect to make the factory be dedicated to this new kind of modern house. However the risks were great, and the economy not cooperative.
If this was not success, then what was? Well lets return to our roots for a moment. Remember our primary goal was to reach a point where anybody who wished to buy a new house could have a modern home as one of their choices. Whether that means modern in style, or green and sustainable, in most reaches of the country if you go out to buy a home in the usual places you still can't find anything like this. All that is offered is the usual 32 flavors of McMansion. So if the big goal was making modern homes available, to create choice where none exists, it was simply not met by the recent PreFab movement. To do this we need to make a housing industry that is style neutral, an industry that wants to build you a house no matter what kind of house you want. You want modern? traditional? They need to serve it up any way you want and all energy efficient. That will only happen here when it is truly just as easy and just as profitable for a builder to make you a modern house as it is to make any other house. PreFab always promised to do that, but it could not because either the proprietary building systems were too limited, or the existing PreFab industry exhibited the same stylistic bias as site builders. So we still can't visit our local home builder and choose our modern house. PreFab has not rushed to the rescue. And now PreFab is dead.
Have I shattered your hopes and dreams? Don't despair. Remember, you're reading the Letters from Sweden. Right? In Sweden they are building houses in factories and anybody who likes a modern house has a wide range of choices from their catalogs. The houses are built to a high level of quality and they use a fraction of the energy consumed by new houses here in the states. And these modern and efficient houses in Sweden are being purchased by average folks - every day people. Not just the rich guys with money to pour into a unique PreFab. Almost everybody gets their house this way. Its like they have a supermarket for modern houses over there and everybody gets to take advantage of it. You might think - but Sweden is a whole country! True, but not a market any bigger than a small portion of our states. There is scale there, yes, but not any amount that we couldn't easily pull together here. So what are they doing that we've not done in our PreFab efforts? Why have they managed to make it happen for everybody, meanwhile here we are trying to squeeze drops of blood out of a stone called PreFab?
The difference has been laid out in this series of posts, Letters from Sweden. The Swedes used to build houses much like ours, but in the 1970s they made a uniform effort to completely revise their entire home building industry. The results as you read here was a complete reinvention of nearly every step of the building process to facilitate off-site building. They did not simply start building indoors. They looked at every step, adapted all of the building materials, and revisited the way everything went together so that it worked for off-site building. They changed things to eliminate waste, to make assembly easier and faster, and they invested those savings back into the house to gain more energy efficient construction standards. And they continuously refined these practices, adopting automation and using it to the same ends. And all that effort brings us to today where they are willing to build modern or traditional because it truly makes no difference to their process. When they build a house the essence of the design is reduced to digital instructions so there is no carpenter leaning over a set of plans for a modern house and rolling his eyes. It comes from breaking the house down into assemblies. For example you have workers building wall panels - this is all the same to them whether it goes into a modern house or traditional house. It all looks the same, and it is in fact the same on the factory floor. Same digital info in, same wall panels out. Every step of the process is de-contextualized in this way, from the CAD operator that turns a floor plan into discrete wall panels, to the field installer craning the panels off the truck. Just like a auto-worker making brake pads in an parts factory has little care for whether that brake pad goes into an SUV or a hatchback. The Swedes are not building houses modern or traditional - they could care less. They are running a house building machine the size of their country that will happily churn out modern as readily as traditional, at the same cost, and the same profit. It would be foolish for them to not offer modern if they have a buyer willing to pay for it.
So this is the significant point for us. This is a construction method that finally puts modern house buyers on equal footing with the rest of the market. Its a model for a world were we can walk into any home seller's showroom and have a choice of a dozen modern homes. And we can buy that home anywhere in the country and it won't cost any more than the guy next door who wanted a traditional design. This method is so much more than PreFab. My correspondent Scott and I have taken to calling this Modern Methods of Construction, or MMC. It speaks to treating home building as a mature industrial process. After all you can be sure that all of the makers of the components that go into a house, from furnaces to windows, all use the most modern assembly practices in their factories. MMC brings that same intelligence to building houses. And that's what will ultimately deliver choice to modern house buyers. PreFab will never do that for you. PreFab is DEAD. Long Live MMC.