Monday, July 27, 2009

Pre-fab Architecture is Dead? We Don't Think So...

Apparently, there is a growing opinion that pre-fabricated architecture is dead. To the heap of recent pile-ons for this form of design, once heralded by modernists as the next generation of housing in America, you can add: "bad business," "cliche," and "over-designed" for common consumption in the United States.

This excellent blog article by Build LLC stakes out the "death" case well from their practical point of view: Pre-fab Houses Don't Work. After reading, be sure to subscribe to their RSS; they write good stuff.

Theirs is a provocative, intelligent piece supporting the idea that pre-fab is dead. Most of the arguements are well-written, but thankfully easily countered (as done by reader Brian of Method Homes in the comments). We're going to take a bigger-picture approach to the arguement to further discussion.

So, what of it? Is modernist pre-fab over-designed, cliche, bad business, or just plain dead? On one (small) hand, we think yes (see qualifier below), but on the other hand, decidedly no.


  1. While pre-fab is at its heart a process (not dead), we think modernist pre-fab also brings baggage of aesthetic (dead) into the discussion. We will address both.
  2. Also, we are including shipping container architecture in the pre-fab arguement, because it is relevant to a project [1016] Architecture is working on right now.

On the count of over-designed: GUILTY

Let's face it, architects usually over-design. It is a pleasure of the artist-patron relationship that is the reason for our profession. The one-on-one attention and problem solving that is the key to successful residential design is a major hinderance to producing scalable, mass-market solutions. Taking too much time means you have to charge more money to make a profit, which kills the main economic driver of pre-fabricated architecture.

Also, modernist pre-fab misses, or more probably, chooses to ignore, a blatant mass-market fact: Americans, as a whole, do not prefer the modernist aesthetic for their homes. They prefer traditional looking houses. Successful mass market products fill a need, they don't instruct people on how a designer thinks they should live.

On the count of cliche: NOT GUILTY

This is where modernism really gets in the way of success for pre-fabricated architecture. The out-of-the-box, avante garde thinkers that push moderism to new places, like pre-fab and shipping container architecture, are only happy at the edge of the envelope. As soon as the "newness" wears off, it doesn't even really excite them and they are on to different things.

The real problem is countless critics, followers, and media pile on and reinforce the stigma that an idea is no longer worthwhile.

Traditional architecture evolved over hundreds of years, yet still has a place in everyone's heart (except Arch'l Record editors, we'd suppose). The fragmented, haphazard way in which housing is delivered, codified, and regulated in this country will take many years to change

Just when modernism leaves something behind it is good and ready for mass acceptance. The flight of the modernist is mostly driven by the fear of being called cliche because they dare do something that has been published before.

Most people that we tell about our container project have never heard of container or pre-fab architecture at all. How can this be cliche?

On the count of BAD BUSINESS: Adjournment requested

Imagine a tailor on Saville Row cranking out hand-made suits, out of some flaboyant fabrics, in one size, and then wondering why he can't sell (for a profit) to anyone who walks in the shop. Even if he could make them fast enough to sell them cheap (he can't), the design is too intense, they won't fit everyone, and the mass market therefore rejects them.

This is ITB's understanding of the current pre-fab. The pioneers of the business are having a tough go: they over-design, use a production method that doesn't quite have enough efficiencies, and generally push a product that most Americans don't want.

Another example: Twitter. This internet service is all the rage right now. Even though Twitter makes no money whatsoever, no one close to it is really calling it dead. The owners are taking time and investors are risking capital to find the recipe for profitability.

On reports of it's death: GREATLY EXAGGERATED (but fun to read)
In a May 2009 Q&A interview with Dwell, Adam Kalkin (an interesting character, and self-described performance-artist-architect) had this to say about the future of container architecture.

[Currently] the people using containers in building are mostly very
sophisticated clients; they’re not, at this point, for every man. If you were
able to figure out the manufacturing methods and scale them, you could make
containers inexpensive, though right now they’re not.

The end user does not care about the process used to deliver housing. Therefore, the process of pre-fab is alive and ripe for innovation.

We at [1016] Architecture and Inside the Brackets believe that pre-fab has tremendous potential in urban infill architecture settings, with a slightly more traditional aesthetic responsive to its location, and when not pitched to the public as a truly custom solution (i.e. is embraced by for-profit developers).

The benefits of pre-fab (controlled quality, reduced construction schedule, sustainable construction practices, etc.) are undeniable. With time, investment, and tweaks to the way modernist pre-fab is brought to the public, it will be a viable chunk of the residential housing market share.

Join the discussion: comment below.

Inside the Brackets is looking for contributing authors. Contact us if you are interested.

Full text to Build LLC blog post: Pre-fab Houses Don't Work.

Side note: it was through this article that ITB heard Michelle Kaufmann Designs was closing their design shop after previously shedding ownership of a factory to produce their pre-fab designs.

Check out our other posts on Container Architecture.

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