The promise of Prefab

Almost four years since the nation’s economy nearly collapsed, taking with it the housing industry, it’s difficult for many working in or around the industry to think of much innovation in construction. Let alone the consideration of alternatives to conventional means of construction, there simply hasn’t been much new construction occurring. Though the economy is slowly improving, bank lending largely remains frozen, and these times aren’t lent well to notions of risky building approaches such as prefabrication. Prefabricated architecture has survived many generations of exploration of new technologies, and repeated attempts to reintroduce the concept to both the housing industry and the science of building at large. The reintroductions of prefabricated architecture in housing took place approximately every 30 to 40 years, and this low frequency allowed the building industry to purge itself of both the ill-fated experiments, and the people that may remember them. Though prefabrication is a very appropriate method of building in applications other than housing (hospitality, military, etc), it is the housing industry that is relied on to prove that this method of building is market worthy. This reliance is because of both the vast number of moderately resourced consumers, and the high visibility of that consumption. The built home provides shelter for the figuratively lowest common denominator, which is the family, and to prove worth in the housing industry is to ensure a stable and prosperous future for prefabricated architecture.

The January-February 2012 issue of Residential Architect (RA) magazine examines the state of prefabrication, or ‘prefab’, in the housing industry, and author Meghan Drueding revisits some of the architects that established reputations for strong, modern prefab design during the past 8 years. These reputations were established following the now well-known competition for modern prefab housing design sponsored by Dwell magazine in 2003, and it is with good reason that Drueding presents these reputed architects as a gauge of the stability of prefab in the housing marketplace against the backdrop of the currently sluggish economy. The most encouraging point made by the RA article the fact that means of prefabrication, of any product, can only remain above water if they achieve a true economy of scale in the production. There are countless, simple examples of the economy of scale in production, and the best may be the automobile manufacturing industry in illustrating the obvious value to both the producer’s profit margin, and the consumer’s demand of availability and consistency. The admission, by the reputed prefab designers, that this economy of scale is the ultimate mark of stability for this alternative approach to housing design is a frustrating reminder that customization or one-off projects don’t avail themselves well to the process of prefabrication. The enamoring of the design profession by sharply designed modern prefab prototypes may ultimately have lead to another failure to stabilize this alternate approach to housing construction, if it were not for the near collapse of the nation’s economy. This near collapse may prove a blessing, as it caught the current high interest in prefab architecture in a state of growing confidence but yet-unleashed intent. As evidenced by the body of work completed over the last 8 years, the intent was the industry-wide template of single-family prototype models. These prototype models would conceivably work well in the context of mass production, but the clientele attracted to the sharply designed modern prefab homes usually expected high customization. As a matter of volume in production, high customization and prefabrication don’t partner well, and the expectation of custom designed layout rendered the industrial process of factory product ineffective. In short, factory production demands repetition. The image of sharply designed modern prefab homes excited the potential creativity in architects, yet presented likely the weakest example of the value of prefabrication as an alternative to conventional methods of home construction.

In order for prefab to transcend the unfortunate impression that it has earned as ever-stuttering novelty rather than serious market contender, this method of  project delivery must prove it can be respected in competition with conventional means of building, and the time-tested proof is undeniably economy of scale.  This means that prototype models must be considered as component parts to larger wholes, like in multiple unit projects on large, single sites or on scattered sites delivered and built simultaneously. This also means that customization must defer to repetition, and this is so that factory production may operate at the speed that it was intended to allow for volume. While architects and their expecting clients will not initially like this reality, minor customizations should be able to be accommodated in prototype models, where repetition commands the process. Architects and their clients can adjust to this reality with the same, strong presentation of the concept of cost reduction and short project timeframes that the reputed designers used to sell the sharply designed modern prefab homes of the last 8 years. The celebrated prototypes that followed the Dwell magazine competition in 2003 unfortunately failed to deliver the intended volume that prefabrication promised, and the high design of customization is largely to blame. Architects are naturally good salespeople, and a majority of them appreciate and admire the promise of prefab to deliver great projects, and to provide the housing market an alternative to conventional methods of home building. It can be hoped that the admission by the reputed prefab designers, interviewed in the RA article, that economy of scale is the ultimate insurer of stability signals a shift in attitude toward truer market competitiveness. The promise of prefab remains alive, and with opportunities to demonstrate its viability, or even superiority in the marketplace to deliver great projects in its appropriate scale, architects will hopefully keep that promise.

John Wimmer, March 30, 2012



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What’s more green……

We recently attended an open house for one of the projects we’ve done for a group called “One Main Street/Gateway in Green”. Their business model and formula for construction seems bullet proof – they seem to pre-sell every one of their renovated homes. The McAnally’s own this company, a father-son tag team duo – and they go about the city buying building that haven’t been tended to for years and years – they then collaborate with us to create amazing new open plan Kitchens, and remarkable Master Bathrooms as the key feature of the homes – making them way more live-able to today’s lifestyles. I commend these guys for saving pieces of St. Louis’ history, saving the landfills, and doing their part to “save the planet” making St. Louis a healthier place a few renovations at a time ! Our current project with the Mcanallys is at 3514 Shenandoah ! We are including that same amazing Kitchen – but in the master suite – a 2 way fireplace and unbelievable bathroom! Call Tom Jr at 315.307.3823 to discuss the project !

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From Matt Belcher of Verdatek Solutions :

Where climate zones located to the North or South may focus on extended periods of colder and dryer or warmer and more humid conditions respectively, by placing the home in St Louis’s mixed climate this prototype will require focus on both extremes, which are inherent to this zone, and necessitate a broader focus for durablity, efficient design, construction, development and retrofitting.

Under normal circumstances, when you build a prototype of most anything you are doing so to test and even push new technology or materials, or both.

Active House is a specification for home design and construction that is currently being developed in Europe. It is a “holistic” specification; meaning it takes into account the resources it takes to construct a building, its impact in terms of energy & water consumption, occupant health and comfort, and even external effects such as storm water runoff.

There have been several prototype homes built around Europe, one was recently completed in Russia during the development of the current specification which was issued in Brussels, Belgium in April of 2010.

The Europeans have a wealth of knowledge in durable construction in harsh climatic conditions, and planning for concentrations and density of population. This experience includes dealing with scarcity of materials (the origin of resource efficiency in today’s green standards, such as Green Globes stem from post war construction and the limited amount of natural resources, such as timber, due to deforestation), along with managing the impact on existing and future resources as a result of those population densities. These issues, combined with the ever increasing demand for energy, created an opportunity to merge knowledge and experience to address resource efficiency while promoting better comfort and health for the building occupants.

Here in the United States a continually growing demand for energy efficient developments, buildings and homes-as well as increased requests for efficiency upgrades and retrofits in the 128 million existing homes, which are responsible for the bulk of the nation’s residential energy loss-necessitates that the construction industry is able to use innovative concepts capable of addressing energy efficiency challenges.

There are also many rapidly developing advancements in local and national building codes, industry technologies and process as a result of incorporation of high-performance standards such as the American National Standards Institute’s ANSI ICC-700 “The National Green Building Standard”, which is a reference standard for the Building Code, the Department of Energy’s Building America/Builder’s Challenge Program and E.P.A.’s Energy Star, Indoor Air and Water Sense Programs.

Incorporating this evolving criteria, implementing a systems-based approach to quality and performance testing into site development and design, and using quality building design and construction practices gives us the ability to identify components that will provide site and building performance competitive with traditional building counterparts. This will also result in a built environment that outperforms traditional buildings in energy efficiency, CO2 emissions, careful conservation of resources, environmental impact, maintenance costs and occupant, health, comfort and satisfaction.

When the opportunity to be a part of the team to construct an Active House prototype in the United States was presented to us, it was apparent that the goal of the Active House Specification and the “National Green Building Standard” were complimentary. Part of our mission with this prototype is to demonstrate how similar they are and create opportunities to expand the market familiarity and impact of both.

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Trailer Homes. Trailer Parks. The first 2 things you think of when you hear the words “modular home”. In several municipalities, including those out west where a lot of times “anything goes” there are ordinances written by trustees and bureaucrats that won’t allow a modular home to be built.

I would implore the naysayers to do as I have done – and tour the facilities of Homeway Homes (just outside Peoria, IL.) . These guys are NO JOKE. The construction practices, the quality control – and most of all the remarkable technology that they use has dispelled the myths about “trailer” homes.

In our recent visit we were able to confirm (and watch happen) the fact that a modular home can be built as well or better (as they are builted in a controlled environment) than a home built in the field. Our intent with this trip was to make sure that if modular is a direction we take on any particular project, that we could build an air tight, energy efficient, and cost effective home – and those ideas were confirmed. This blog entry will be the first of many that will expound on our findings – so tune in for future entries !

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Lafayette Square – Here we go again !

Soon to be under construction and available for purchase through John Muller of Diversified Real Estate Group, are these classic homes in the sought after Lafayette Square in St. Louis. What will set these homes apart in regard to location, is that these will look onto Lafayette Park ! These 3000+ square foot homes will offer 2 1/2 stories of living space, and an optional finished lower level. The 3rd (1/2) story will also offer a rooftop observation terrace large enough for entertaining, or just relaxing to the sounds and views of the city and the home will be built elevator ready on all floors including basement. This home is designed to and will be built to meet the energystar guidelines for energy efficient, high performance homes, and will be full brick for the exterior with stone lintel accents. read more…

To Learn More about Diversified Real Estate Group, and these homes offered for sale call John direct at : (314) 568-5296

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The Offices of Jeff Day & Associates goes NET ZERO !

Recently, with the help of MicroGrid Energy we installed solar panels on the roof of our office building ! The solar production from this new system will provide enough electric for our office as well as our neighbor upstairs to be net-zero, meaning we will not have to pay for electricity ! See the pictures below !

With this 6250 watt project we will be taking advantage of the Federal Grant monies, which will cover 30% of the cost of the project, as well as the Ameren Missouri rebate offer which covers $2 per watt of potential production installed.

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Green Architecture : All About Business

Recently we were interviewed for the new St. Louis TV show “All About Business“, a show that airs on Channel 11 KPLR. This particular show was about “going green” and we walk thru a NEAR ZERO ENERGY home that we designed. Below is a link to the video, and a list of stats on this particular home.

  • Ameren Missouri’s FIRST net metered home !
  • ICF construction for the Lower Level and First Floor
  • Super insulated second floor, build into roof system
  • Geothermal heating and cooling
  • Solar electric (Missouri’s FIRST net metered home)
  • Passive heat gain fireplace breast
  • Wool carpet
  • All wood used in this house is FSC certified
  • Cabinetry made right across the river in Illinois
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The First Certified Green Home in Richmond Heights

In collaboration with C.M. Greene Homes, custom “GREEN” Home Builder, we developed a plan for a new 3100 square foot home, designed with Prairie School flair.

  • Some of the basic green features are as follows:
  • The foundation is made up of prefabricated hi-stress concrete panel walls from Superior Walls of Springfield, IL.

The first and second floor walls are pre-fabricated into wall panels off site, and hoisted into place on site, where they are filled with blown cellulose insulation

  • Cementitious stucco panel siding, with low VOC paint
  • The “buff” colored brick as supplied by Kirchner block and brick, was manufactured in Kansas City – within 500 miles of the job site.
  • Low VOC finishes throughout the interior
  • FSC certified wood flooring

And then the mechanics :

  • Very Hi-efficiency HVAC systems
  • Very Hi-efficiency solar thermal water heating system
  • Natural light to all the rooms of the interior

This private residence is slated for completion March 30, 2009. Drive by and see the new home as the finishing touches are inplemented – at 7422 Hoover Ave.

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Missouri’s first Geothermal Community

Under construction in Eureka, is the first Geothermal community in Missouri – The Greens at Fox Run uses geothermal energy systems for heat, air conditioning and hot water.

Geothermal in simple terms : It takes the heat from the earth to provide warmth in the winter, while transferring a home’s heat underground in the summer. This system also provides free heat energy for heating water year round.

Durable polyethylene pipes are buried 150 feet beneath the earth and filled with fluid. The earth keeps this fluid an approximate 56° year round.

The underground pipe system works in conjunction with a heat extraction system, an inside unit a little larger than a washing machine. During the winter months the pipe system takes the heat from the earth and transfers it into the heat extraction system, where it makes the small adjustment needed to bring the air to the desired room temperature. In the summer, the system is reversed and heat is siphoned from the home and deposited into the cooler earth.

This 78 home village alone will eliminate about 400 tons of carbon emissions while saving 25 million BTUs every year – the equivalent of adding 30,000 mature oxygen-producing trees to the landscape each year the units operate.

This new home development has been built to LEED Standards (U.S. Green Building Council), National Green Building Standards (National Association of Home Builders), Energy Star Standards (U.S. Department of Energy), and Great Homes Green Standards (Missouri Department of Natural Resources).

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Making New “Green” Look Like Old St. Louis…

When approached by Mark Lammert and Mark Kalk, to design a new sustainable home for them in Historic Lafayette Square (the first GREEN home of its kind in Lafayette Square !) we were excited and eager to rise to the challenge.

In St. Louis, Lafayette Square is a well known Historic community, rich with Victorians, Italianates, Federals & Federal Adamesques, and other similar sister styles. Because of its strong history, and richness of style, we saw Lafayette Square and its trademark gorgeous architecture as a community to pay homage to in regard to designing a new home.

The property purchased for this challenge is located at the corner of Doleman and Hickory, a total of four lots. The lot Frontage faces East (toward Doleman).

Using the client’s preliminary sketches and thoughts, we closely collaborated on the home and arrived at several sustainable ideas as follows:

The Passive

Free light, free heat : the side yard, and longitudinal property side faces South. We have located the more public spaces on the South side of the home, offering a great deal of light and (in the winter) heat – via several windows and doors. These windows and doors will also open out onto a courtyard and grotto-like garden at the first level.

At the southwest corner of the home, we located a 250 square foot conservatory that will house a garden and seating area, for year round outdoor relaxation, (and free heat via “insolation” in the colder months). The roof of this “greenhouse” structure will be glass. This element will generate heat year round that can be released into the home by leaving open a pair of French doors that lead from the Great Room, or the heat can be released back outside through operable venting roof panels.

The Water Runoff

Behind the mansard style “false front” roof, we provided the traditional Lafayette Square flat roof – but have brought it modern day appeal with a live roof. Accessible by a large skylight scuttle, this roof will be used as yet another garden, growing several native plants and grasses, and allowing space for a recycled rubber tire paver patio. Rainwater will collect on and be used by these plants, reducing the amount of water runoff sent into the city storm sewers.

The mansard roof structure will provide 300 square foot of storage for gardening tools and patio furniture during the cold season.

The Construction

For this home, we will take the prefab approach. The foundation walls will be prefabricated, Hi-stress concrete wall panels that have an inherent “R” value of 12½, and a wall cavity that allows for around 20-25 more. (30-35 total “R”), and are provided by Superior walls ( ) This product allows for the foundation to be set and ready for the first floor system in one day.

The exterior walls will be constructed in panels offsite in controlled conditions as well. They will then be craned in place (with exterior walls already having plywood sheathing). This will save approximately 40% of the time necessary to build on site.

The guts and skin of the wall will consist of recycled drywall over 6 mil poly-vapor barrier on the inside face, and an R-22 dry blown cellulose insulation in the stud cavity. The exterior skin of the stud wall will consist of ½” plywood sheathing with fiber mesh building wrap, and a 1” layer of rigid foam insulation. The exterior skin of this home is masonry, but not just any masonry……the Stone is mined and milled in Indiana (230 miles away) and the brick is manufactured at the LEED approved Sioux City brick plant in Sioux City, IA.

Sage Homebuilders is scheduled to start construction on this home in the Spring of 2009.

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