Sunday, October 24, 2010

Letters from Sweden - PreFab is DEAD

Shocking headline intended to get your attention? Guilty. But its true.

Modern PreFab burst on to the scene 10 years or so ago. Before we knew it everybody was a-buzz about PreFab. Magazine articles, newspapers, cable tv shows. Lots of ideas were being tossed out, and some houses were being built. Everybody was hopeful - this is it! We might finally see modern homes priced competitive to standard production homes, all thanks to PreFab. And then just like every PreFab cycle that came before, it was over - again - with little to show for it. Yes, some nice houses were built, and yes, a few are still being built. And capping it off MOMA had a PreFab exhibit, one that should have embarrassed any architect. It was the crown jewel to announce that PreFab had arrived! But was actually more of a postscript on why it had died, again. So here we are on the other side of the cycle and what have we learned? The housing industry is largely unchanged. Design of status quo homes has not improved. Modern is still not readily available. This time around lets just see it for what it is. Call a spade a spade. PreFab is dead.

Colin Davies has given the best account of this repeating cycle in his book The PreFabricated Home. He examines a dozen attempts by architects to reinvent housing via PreFabrication. Consistently the architects conceive of brilliant "systems" which defy established standards and fail to achieve a sustainable volume. While the architects repeatedly flailed at reinventing house building the modular industry quietly reached a sustainable market share. But architects have always discounted this industry because they did not consider it architecture.

Was this round any different? Again we've seen marginal use of several unconventional construction methods. I myself have been involved with pre-engineered steel building systems applied to homes, and shipping container based houses. Others have adapted aluminum industrial framing systems. Others have made houses cast of concrete in forms CNC milled from blocks of styrofoam. And incredibly we've seen puzzle like houses made from little pieces of plywood proposed as a solution. All very endlessly clever, and all hopelessly fated to not change the way houses are built. They fight established building codes, they confound local tradespeople, they frustrate the very people who build houses. As you would expect builders are mostly disinterested in learning a new way to build a house, and their customers are mostly unwilling to pay them to learn it over again too.

But there were other approaches - those that attempted to leverage the existing modular industry to build a new kind of house. There was some success here, and I too worked on some projects in this realm as well. Here we saw modern designs using modular construction, for the first time factories building a house that was modern or green or both, using the tried and true method of off-site assembled modules. But it was no panacea - here the problem was different. The designers struggled against the momentum of the industry. They wanted to introduce new materials and new methods, but the factories and their economy of scale wanted to do what they had always done. It was possible to very carefully find common ground and make a new and modern design, but then at the heart of it little had changed. Costs were not equal to the rest of the factory's conventional output, and the result was largely superficial. Many potential customers walked away disappointed. Another option they could not afford. Owning the factory seemed like an option that would enable the architect to make the factory be dedicated to this new kind of modern house. However the risks were great, and the economy not cooperative.

If this was not success, then what was? Well lets return to our roots for a moment. Remember our primary goal was to reach a point where anybody who wished to buy a new house could have a modern home as one of their choices. Whether that means modern in style, or green and sustainable, in most reaches of the country if you go out to buy a home in the usual places you still can't find anything like this. All that is offered is the usual 32 flavors of McMansion. So if the big goal was making modern homes available, to create choice where none exists, it was simply not met by the recent PreFab movement. To do this we need to make a housing industry that is style neutral, an industry that wants to build you a house no matter what kind of house you want. You want modern? traditional? They need to serve it up any way you want and all energy efficient. That will only happen here when it is truly just as easy and just as profitable for a builder to make you a modern house as it is to make any other house. PreFab always promised to do that, but it could not because either the proprietary building systems were too limited, or the existing PreFab industry exhibited the same stylistic bias as site builders. So we still can't visit our local home builder and choose our modern house. PreFab has not rushed to the rescue. And now PreFab is dead.

Have I shattered your hopes and dreams? Don't despair. Remember, you're reading the Letters from Sweden. Right? In Sweden they are building houses in factories and anybody who likes a modern house has a wide range of choices from their catalogs. The houses are built to a high level of quality and they use a fraction of the energy consumed by new houses here in the states. And these modern and efficient houses in Sweden are being purchased by average folks - every day people. Not just the rich guys with money to pour into a unique PreFab. Almost everybody gets their house this way. Its like they have a supermarket for modern houses over there and everybody gets to take advantage of it. You might think - but Sweden is a whole country! True, but not a market any bigger than a small portion of our states. There is scale there, yes, but not any amount that we couldn't easily pull together here. So what are they doing that we've not done in our PreFab efforts? Why have they managed to make it happen for everybody, meanwhile here we are trying to squeeze drops of blood out of a stone called PreFab?

The difference has been laid out in this series of posts, Letters from Sweden. The Swedes used to build houses much like ours, but in the 1970s they made a uniform effort to completely revise their entire home building industry. The results as you read here was a complete reinvention of nearly every step of the building process to facilitate off-site building. They did not simply start building indoors. They looked at every step, adapted all of the building materials, and revisited the way everything went together so that it worked for off-site building. They changed things to eliminate waste, to make assembly easier and faster, and they invested those savings back into the house to gain more energy efficient construction standards. And they continuously refined these practices, adopting automation and using it to the same ends. And all that effort brings us to today where they are willing to build modern or traditional because it truly makes no difference to their process. When they build a house the essence of the design is reduced to digital instructions so there is no carpenter leaning over a set of plans for a modern house and rolling his eyes. It comes from breaking the house down into assemblies. For example you have workers building wall panels - this is all the same to them whether it goes into a modern house or traditional house. It all looks the same, and it is in fact the same on the factory floor. Same digital info in, same wall panels out. Every step of the process is de-contextualized in this way, from the CAD operator that turns a floor plan into discrete wall panels, to the field installer craning the panels off the truck. Just like a auto-worker making brake pads in an parts factory has little care for whether that brake pad goes into an SUV or a hatchback. The Swedes are not building houses modern or traditional - they could care less. They are running a house building machine the size of their country that will happily churn out modern as readily as traditional, at the same cost, and the same profit. It would be foolish for them to not offer modern if they have a buyer willing to pay for it.

So this is the significant point for us. This is a construction method that finally puts modern house buyers on equal footing with the rest of the market. Its a model for a world were we can walk into any home seller's showroom and have a choice of a dozen modern homes. And we can buy that home anywhere in the country and it won't cost any more than the guy next door who wanted a traditional design. This method is so much more than PreFab. My correspondent Scott and I have taken to calling this Modern Methods of Construction, or MMC. It speaks to treating home building as a mature industrial process. After all you can be sure that all of the makers of the components that go into a house, from furnaces to windows, all use the most modern assembly practices in their factories. MMC brings that same intelligence to building houses. And that's what will ultimately deliver choice to modern house buyers. PreFab will never do that for you. PreFab is DEAD. Long Live MMC.


  1. I think people are just afraid of change or they worry PreFab is not what their parents grew up in or whatever. They don't know what they are going to miss out on.

  2. I have to give a shout out to Lloyd Alter who was actually the first to speak the taboo PreFab is Dead message long ago on TreeHugger here:
    The Glidehouse Is At The End Of The Road For Green Modern Prefab
    and here:
    The End of the Road for Modern Prefab? This Just Might Be The Beginning!

  3. Anonymous, some people were afraid, but each of them were 10+ that came to PreFab only to discover it was no more affordable than custom design. They were right back where they started. It was not a failure to win customers, it was a failure to change the industry at a fundamental level. Modern/Green/Sustainable remains the exception which the industry will not offer alongside the status quo.

  4. This blogger gets it:

    However, the larger point is that affordable, efficient and modern housing that is actually viable in the marketplace can only come from true systemic innovations in production (a la the Swedish model) – not simply through clever individual choices by particular manufacturers/providers of specific manufactured/prefab houses or kits.

    Bliggity Blog

  5. A thoughtful reaction by Modern PreFab home developer Squallco here:

    Squallco blog post on PreFabDead

    and my response is in the comments, but I'll repeat it here as well:

    I wanted to post a thoughtful response to Kevin because our heads are in the same place. In fact his application of PreFab in a market like LBI makes tremendous sense and is an opportunity for any buyer to get more house for their money in that Market. So in that sense prefab did not fail, in fact its a spectacular success.

    My criticism really lands on other markets. But you can't say that prefab is failing in those other places either. Modular factories have produced thousands of homes, all a good value for their owners. Where it failed however was in its promise to help all of those fans of modern homes to find a reasonable and fair priced offering of modern houses in the wider housing market. Big FAIL here. If I'm coming down on prefab its because if nothing changes there, then nothing is going to turn that FAIL around.

    So how can the Swedes do it? Why does their prefab industry offer a wider selection? Why does it account for almost all the houses they build? Its because they changed their house building industry to support it. They changed all the products that go in to their house to work with prefabrication, to remove barriers to easy and fast assembly, and they continuously adopted new process that supported this approach. That translated into a more efficient way to build, which could result in lower prices, sure, but in Sweden's case was turned back into high energy performance.

    How does that help us who are interested in Modern? What they arrived at is what we call Modern Method of Construction or MMC - no, not modern style, but modern techniques and practices. Building a house is not treated like a "craft" - its treated like a modern industrial process. Houses are assembled on a line, with waste and redundancy eliminated at every step. Lean processes are used, and there is a keen awareness of where they are adding value for the customer, and how to eliminate things that are not. Ultimately this process is style neutral - a modern style house costs no more than a traditional house, and any manufacturer would be a fool to not offer a house that somebody is willing to buy. Fix the process, and house style takes care of itself, and we all enjoy more efficient houses.

  6. Extremism gets people nowhere ... and over-excites too many. I'm sad that a designer+architect bought into a definition of success largely created by media/marketing.

    Contemporary prefab doesn't have to be 'hugely adopted' to be successful. If we've learned anything about modular prefabrication is that it *can* adapt itself to new designs. Why else are there so many architects talking to factories like Simplex, Clayton Homes, etc. this very minute? And why else are those factories trying to create their own brand with it?

    It's just a slow process and doesn't make a lot of money right now for anyone. Who determines that 10 years (which I don't agree with either) of not-mass-success = failure/death? Geez, Rome wasn't built in a day either.

    Please stop the generalized ridiculous shock statements and get back to having healthy, spirited discussions on continuing to move forward. wee is.

    -Betsy Gabler, Alchemy Architects, home of the very much alive weeHouse (if only defined as home to some-not-all)

  7. Betsy, the healthy discussion begins right after the headline, I promise. We are all entitled to play the shock card once in a great while if its for a good reason. I'll gladly apologize if it offends you. I'm a big supporter of what Wee House has and is accomplishing - you'll note that I cited Wee House as an example of prefab success in the comments of Lloyd Alter's first TreeHugger post linked above.

    Individual efforts have been successful in delivering good design and good value to their customers. Wee House is a perfect example, as is Hive, Res4A out of NYC to perhaps a customer of a higher budget, and of course MKD's efforts until dragged down by the economy.

    I don't expect Rome to be built in a day, and clearly we've had more than a "day". I do expect re-evaluation and incremental improvement, not just in the production circle of each designer's venture, but in the housing industry as a whole. Vendors have to improve their process. Component manufacturers need to revise their products to support off-site building, and designers need to learn how to become part of a manufacturing process and break from the architects traditional role. Wee House may be making progress on all these fronts, but the housing industry is not.

    And that is my point. "PreFab" is dead because it will never be able to serve our entire market of green or sustainable or modern focused home owners as a series of limited ventures. Pre-fabrication off-site is only one small part of making change in the housing market. PreFab is not the movement that will result in change. Its bigger than that, and the sooner we all begin to embrace this bigger idea of intelligent manufacturing of homes, then the sooner we will be able to shape the market and bring other essential players on board.

  8. Point out how vacuous, intellectually empty and deliberately confusing the architectural conversation around "prefab" in America is and how the rest of the world has surged ahead in both energy performance and customer value in residential construction, and people who profess to care about these things, call you "an extremist".

    Keep it up Greg. They are listening, Ms. Grabler is in the second stage of Kübler-Ross's five steps, and you do her no favors by backing down or easing her grief by saying "no, its not your way of thinking that is wrong, it is everyone else, there there, you'll be fine, your prefab isn't dead".

    When a loved idea (as a loved person) dies, there are steps to progress as we move to "acceptance". It is hard, but necessary, only then can we progress.

    Architects, trained in a certain way of seeing their role, have got to come to terms with the truth of what you are saying ... don't back down, keep saying it. A less wasteful and more attractive future lies down this path ... why just have a drive around any new subdivision outside Stockholm and ask yourself, why are these houses so much better that the ones in St. Paul?

    It is a shame, yet understandable that your courage in pointing out the truth is received as "extremism" - one day architects may accept "the lessons of the factory" - but as Davies points out, it ain't gonna be easy for them, even in Sweden, architects struggle for relevance in all that we've accomplished.

  9. Architect in the US long ago lost their relevance in housing, so we don't have anything to loose there. Its my opinion that we can play a bigger part in the future of housing here if we actively embrace and push for a new way forward. Housing is a shambles. Any small builder, or small factory that wants to distinguish themselves in this tough market should be embracing new methods like this.

    To celebrate all that has been done in Sweden, and to show readers all the fine choices in house designs that they have every day we are going to feature images of Swedish catalog house designs in the LamiDesign Idea Log, visible in the right column of the blog for the rest of this week, maybe longer!

    How would you like going shopping for a house and having every builder you visit offer you a choice of 5, 10, maybe even 15 different modern designs? Whatever you like, you are the customer, they are at your service.

  10. If you are curious about the MOMA exhibit mentioned in my post above you can see my photos and read my impressions of the MOMA - Home Delivery PreFab show here: Greg's photos on PushPullBar Forum

    The sad truth is that the MOMA show completely missed the point, and completely ignored the few PreFab products that were actually making some headway. My photos and comments are meant to highlight how off course this show was.

    Scott is dying to post his thoughts on the MOMA show. What do you say? Interested in reading more about this sad comment on architect's relationship to prefab?

  11. Our expo of Swedish Factory Houses continues in the right side column. Today Trivselhus.

    We are trying to show you the magnitude of the FAIL of the USA housing industry here. If a small country can provide so much choice for modern houses AND be profitable at it, why can't the USA even provide a limited selection?

    Larger Merchant Home builders here in the USA - FAIL.
    PreFab efforts here in the USA - FAIL.

    How much more slack are we supposed to cut out here. Its time to demand better.

  12. Prefab rocks, and I support it as a design and material wonder. Just want one.

  13. COuld you post a list of the most important Swedish pre-fab builders? I assume you have one thanks to your research. If not I'll start Googling.

  14. Thorwald, I invite you to browse through the LamiDesign Idea Log - link in the right hand column - where we have done a wide review of many of the Swedish Factory products. Check the archives from Oct10-Jan11