Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Letters from Sweden - land of modern, land of prefab

In my previous entry I introduced Scott, my correspondent from Sweden. An American builder relocated to a suburb of Stockholm, he landed in an alternate reality where modern housing was everywhere, commonplace, even dare I say unremarkable. None of the stigmas or resistance we have come to associate with building a modern house were present. Every builder offered solid modern design in the range of homes they sold, and were more than happy to sell you one. On top of this prefabrication techniques were the norm. Sizable portions of the houses Scott saw being built were put together in the factory, and the standards for wiring and plumbing seemed to be designed to make this easier, not more difficult as it is here in the US. Scott made it his personal mission to learn more about how they were building houses with the hope he could distill what it was in Sweden that enabled this and was apparently missing stateside. Click through below to continue reading.. Scott began by telling me about the typical process by which houses in Sweden are built: "...the majority of new construction is built like this. I would call the house panelized - but it is "way way panelized" and is a total package. The houses come on trucks from rural places in Sweden. The windows are in, the insulation, wiring, wallboard where possible - every thing - the pipes, the wiring systems, the doors, stairs ... everything has been engineered and rationalized to reduce labor, find energy and material economy and work with the method of construction where stuff is pre-assembled as much as possible inside a building and then "erected" or installed on the site under very compressed schedules. These houses go from slab to dry in and locked inside of a week - the fit out and installation of everything else is really much like what I've seen in the USA - you just can't squeeze that much more out of what happens on a building site ... other than make it a total package and schedule the deliveries in the most rational way. For instance you have to install the interior ceilings after the house is up - however you can load the sheetrock in the room as the sub floors go down (and they do) which cuts down own lugging stuff around." Lets contrast this with the US. There are some companies doing panelization, but typically it is only carried as far as the rough framing. Wall panels come to the site with studs framed and sheathing on. Its a short cut on rough framing, but the siding, insulation, utilities, and interior finishes still need to be added. The LV House is a good example of this. More recently the prototype Loblolly House has won awards for its integration of building systems into the panelization. But lo and behold - this is standard practice in Sweden. Wall panels come to the site with siding on the outside, wall board on the inside, and wiring and plumbing in place within the walls. Why can't we do that? One of the issues are our standard practices for electrical and plumbing work. They do not lend themselves to these field connections between adjacent panels, where as the Swedish standards are designed to ease these very conditions. > But the majority of prefab in the USA is in the form of modular construction. Modular construction reduces the field connections to a a few major utility connections when the boxes are placed on the foundation, but otherwise are much more complete when they arrive at the site. Granted, this is not the reason why modular is more popular in the US. Modular housing here grew out of motor-home construction, which was a more permanent version of a trailer. When the flimsy construction of motor-homes became an obvious problem in the US it was put under a nation wide spec known as a HUD Code. At that point the industry split into factories that continued to build motor homes under the new rules, and factories that adapted to building to local site built construction codes which became the modular industry. That has dominated the US prefab business ever since. Its popularity here is due to administration - not because it makes construction sense. And how could it make construction sense? Shipping a house in big pieces is tantamount to shipping air. There is a reason why Ikea ships furniture in a flat-pack. The shipping is so much more efficient for flat goods, than big boxy hollow goods. The challenge becomes how to complete as much of the house as possible while still being able to ship it flat. Whole houses arrive on two trucks rather than 4 or 5. Next we'll get into more detail about how these houses go together. Previously: Letters from Sweden - conversations with an expatriate builder

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  1. Greg, LamiBlog readers:

    I thought I'd mention a few things about the photo in your post - and then try to make a provocative point about the notion of remodern.

    What doesn't show too well in that photo are the finished wall sections, mostly what is visible are the floors, which are also delivered as you see as sections with the subfloor nailed to the joists.

    Everything comes standing on end as you see there, with grab loops of webbing or rope installed at the factory there is even a section of roof deck, made of ACQ.

    One of the things I really love about your blog is the level of construction discussion, and construction exposition - I have to admit I'm as much interested in building processes and business organization here as I am in style - of course, I guess I'm pro choice, as much as pro modern.

    What I'd really like to know is if the hard headed builders in the US are right - that American's don't really want smaller modern and efficient houses. I think they are wrong - just like detroit saying that Americans wouldn't drive Civics. Of course one is right to claim americans won't drive civics if there are no civics to drive.

    Greg once wrote, that modern prefab isn't about price it is about "availibility" ... this is not a settled question to me ... but when I see these $300 - $400 sq. foot trailerhomes for sale as modern prefab ... I wonder.

    One of the things I've come to understand here is the organization of the market drives the variety in the marketplace.

    In the US it seems that a lot of architects are offering houses which are grounded on some kind of aesthetic platform - or ideology. This is not a slight on your notion of "remodern" - but meant as a healthy critique of it.

    In Sweden the firms are organized around a set of construction competencies - and they deliberately offer ANYTHING that the market would possibly buy. For a swedish house company there are very low incrimental costs to offer another product, once they have sunk all the capital and overhead in a factory and the knowldege and systems to deliver a house they way they do, of course they are going to try to serve as many customers as they can.

    In the US, so much of what is on offer in the "modern prefab" is about the former, before the latter. In Sweden, the firms have the ability to make any house with walls that are bounded by certian limits of the jigging tables in the factories.

    The architect, and what the architect likes, pales in comparison to what the customer wants.

    Look at the way this firm is presenting their catalog:


    It lacks all of the modern pretension and narrative that comes with much what we see in the US - just no frills, sensible modern houses ... standing right next to houses that look rather traditional and old fashioned. This page proves what corbusier said, "styles are dead" ... of course I think he meant that the old styles are dead, and the new style is "modern" ... but really what is true about what he said is "that style is dead" ... full stop.

    A-Hus is an example of a "style blind" company. They are a customer focused firm that supplys shelter and treats you as if what you want matters. How at odds with much of what architects believe about their role in all this!

    The marketing accomplishments of these companies are every bit as interesting as their products!

    Regards, Scott

  2. Oops, I need to say that I didn't read the part of the post below the fold when I posted that last comment - the subsequent photos show the finished wall sections just fine!

  3. I've come to see it this way:

    Discussing prefabricated construction without appreciating industry in Scandinavia, is like trying to understand wine without reference to France.

  4. Thanks Scott - glad to have you weighing here as well. You went on to mention some of the topics we reached in our correspondence, and we'll return to as I work through the emails. This whole idea of architecture with a "Capital A" as I called it is a factor of the prefabs being vetted in the US. Even my stock plans I must confess have too much design content to be really mainstream as the A Hus products would be.

    I'm glad you like the construction content of the blog. I think its essential to the discussion. If you are going to look at prefab, its about construction strategies, if you are going to consider modern as a rationalization of the times we live in, then the way it is built is imperative. I hope it gives meaning to the abstract ideas of prefab and construction for the consumers that read the blog.

  5. Great, great post guys!
    As a non-architect but a big design enthusiast, I'd like to leave my 2 cents:

    We forget several things about the US market. The reason Sweden and Germany and similar countries can so quickly change an industry (whether it be building or cell phones or whatever) is because... they're smaller! They may be "shipping from the countryside" but it's still much less distance and therefore affordable to get it all together and then get that product to the site.

    I myself have been trying to answer this question and to be responsible am trying to get a California client's walls fabricated in the California plant, the Virginia client's walls in a Virginia plant, etc.

    In order to do this and offer low prices I have to work with a huge network of individually owned plants... and haggle with them to try to honor my projected price. To *then* find people who can take it a step further and get interior walls, much less plumbing, much less electric... you are already then using several vendors shipping from several locations and ... ah the tangled web I weave!

    It is just so much harder to get all those factors, coming together geographically, and still be AFFORDABLE. You might be able to do it in Texas but then what about the Washington person with no plant even near them? It is not responsible to ship to them from Texas.

    I completely agree with Scott that a large number of people now understand why smaller and more efficient is better.

    Thanks for a great post, kudos from Virginia! : )

  6. Copeland - thanks for your observations. You hit on a point that Scott made several times in his correspondence. Sweden is a country that is about the size of California and has the population of New Jersey. Its remarkable that within that limited market that they can not only create their own building standards, but also the full gamut of products to build a house, everything from electrical boxes and plumbing fixtures, to framing and the industrial infrastructure to make them. And they treat their workers much better too.

    There is efficiency there, yes, but also a degree of nimbleness. There is less momentum, and less risk to change direction towards a better solution.

  7. This innovation thing makes me cry.

    As americans we pride ourselves on being efficient and market driven.

    Are we?

    Can we really explain the amount of innovation in these small socialist, and government shackled places, by saying that they are small?

    I don't know what it is, but it ain't nothing.

    Go look a the website for "Boro Hus" and then look at the website for "Patriot Homes" ... why does Patriot look like it just drank a bottle of thunderbird on the res. while Boro hus look like it is sitting down to a nice Chateau Mouton-Rothschild ... why?

  8. Bwa-ha-ha-ha! As a fan of the corkscrew I appreciate your analogy. However, we are all modern design enthusiasts here.

    But look at much of true, old, traditional architecture-- passive solar is not a new concept so why are the current traditional people not better utilizing it? Why are many people thinking passive solar today can only be modern?

    Check out some of these traditional homes (below) and see how they incorporate our "latest" buzzwords (overhang/south windows/clerestory blah blah blah!)... then.

    So it's not *can* we do passive solar traditional, but why aren't they?

    Consumer market, speak up! ; )

    P.s. Dag it- I couldn't insert the pictures. Just google images of farm houses, thatched roof barns, english cottages, traditional structures in France's provence and note placement of windows/lack of windows on certain sides, etc.

  9. Great job! Where did you figure that out? Is that seriously Sweden? That's so cool! By the way, who took the picture of the wall bieng put on? That's cool. Oh, and Copeland, Bwa ha ha nothin'. That's just plain weird. I agree w/ whoever said consumer market speak up. It's true.