Prefabulous or Fad? - Page 2

Designers and builders of prefabricated homes go modern and green—but what lies ahead?

What is prefab?

Today's prefabricated houses are of two kinds:

• Modular, which means the house is built in the factory as a one- or more room-sized 'modules,' complete with walls, floor, wiring, finishes—even built-in furniture, if desired—then brought to the site via truck where they can be attached to other modules and to the foundation. Modular houses often arrive at the site in just a few pieces.

• Panelized, which means the house is constructed as a series of sections, often wall and ceiling panels that contain wiring and insulation. The panels and other prefabricated elements, including kitchens and bathrooms, are assembled on site. Panels are often SIPS (Structural Insulated Panels). Panelized prefabs can arrive at the site in hundreds of pieces. Kit houses are a variant of panelized systems.

During World War II, Gropius and Conrad Wachsmann tried and failed to build prefab war housing in America. Buckminster Fuller gave it a shot with his 'Wichita House,' building a total of one. A critic dubbed it "Fuller's glorified grain bin." In 1950, even the builder of the now-legendary Lustron house—which was steel-framed with enameled paneling—went bankrupt.

There have been successes, of course, though few were modern in style. More than 200,000 prefab units were turned out for worker housing during World War II by dozens of builders. A century earlier, entrepreneurs who flocked to treeless San Francisco to profit from the Gold Rush imported 5,000 prefab homes, including Colonials and Carpenter Gothics, from the East Coast and Europe, shipping many around the Horn. And who can forget the Sears Roebuck kit houses, built from roughly 1900 to 1940?

The ubiquitous 'trailer,' later dubbed a 'mobile home,' remains an integral part of the American landscape, of course. But 'mobile homes' are not what architects mean when they talk about modern prefab. "It's a word nobody wants to use," says architect Bryant Yeh, whose Los Angeles firm Yeh + Jerrard has designed the prefab JoT house.

Nobody, that is, except architect Jennifer Siegal, whose Office of Mobile Design in Los Angeles really does produce homes that can move from site to site. Siegal has said she's responding to the "new nomadism."

"The early modernists put the prefabricated house at the center of their program of reform," Colin Davies observes in his book 'The Prefabricated Home.' "Architectural history may pretend otherwise, but the fact is that their prefabricated house projects all failed."

Why? The federal government, which in time of crisis threw money at prefabs, repeatedly grew bored and turned off the tap, Davies notes. Several of the architects, including Wachsmann, seemed more interested in designing ideal prefabs than in their actual manufacture. And the few prefabs that were available couldn't compete against conventional stick-built tract homes, which likewise benefited from efficient, rationalized mass production.

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Today, however, is different, proponents say. Technology has improved, quality manufacturers exist (many have been producing modular school rooms), and there is pent-up demand for modern, affordable architect-designed homes. The last time middle-class people could really afford custom modern homes, after all, was in the mid-1960s.

Designers attribute the newfound interest in prefabs to the desire to save the planet through green design, design-savvy young people, and increasing housing costs that are forcing architects—and buyers—to come up with creative solutions.

Kappe also believes that 'Dwell' magazine helped stimulate interest by sponsoring recent competitions for well-designed prefab houses, and having the winner built in North Carolina. 'Sunset' magazine also worked with Kaufmann on the 'Sunset' Breezehouse. 'Time,' 'Newsweek,' 'Business Week,' and other publications wrote about the new prefab designs. "The press has been wonderful," Kaufmann says.

One thing that is not driving the newfound interest in prefab is a desire to produce something that's bargain basement. Chic, more than cheap, is what designers and buyers are after. "It's not really cheaper," architect Alan Koch says of prefab versus conventional construction, "but you get a better quality product for the same price."

In a factory, Friedman says, conditions can be controlled, and workers more closely supervised than on the typical building site. The result, he says, is better quality. And on site, the homes go up quickly—often in a day, if they are modular; longer, if they are panelized.