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