Thursday, November 18, 2010

PreFab is Dead - the staggering FAIL of US Housing

As we enter Day 18 of my expo of Swedish Factory Houses on the LamiDesign Idea Log I can barely contain the magnitude of my outrage. I had to write this blog post simply to stop myself from going to the window of my studio, sticking my head out of the opening and screaming "I'm mad as Hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" You have to understand the staggering, colossal, and tragic scale of the FAIL of the US Housing Industry to serve its customers.

So here is the deal. Sweden, a small country with the population of NJ, the size of California, manages to offer within its limited market dozens, I'll wager hundreds of modern house designs to its customers. And its not like each home builder has one or two token modern houses in the catalog. They all have a dozen or more. Even if you are part of that smaller margin that likes a modern house, you still have choice of dozens of houses where ever you might look to build a house. Yet here in the USA our corresponding mainstream home builders offer none. Nothing. Nada. Something is clearly wrong here. Our home builders say "if its not what most people want, then I won't offer it." In Sweden the mantra is completely reversed: "if its something that somebody will want, then we'll certainly offer it."

It makes some sense. Why bother to engineer the house and produce marketing material for a design that won't sell as well? Truthfully, that is not the reason. These costs are minimal, earned back in a single home build as the Swedes clearly demonstrate. The reason is because the American home builders can not build these houses as profitably as their mainstream offerings. Their carpenters in the field building repetitive houses get into a flow of their work, the dimensions and layout of the standard plans in a subdivision eventually committed to memory. They may use different siding on each one or a different facade treatment, but the houses are from a limited group of plans and the framing work is equal. How can they introduce into that work flow one or two modern homes with different plans and different massing without breaking their pace. Those one or two homes will take them longer to build, and will make less profit. Why even offer them? They don't.

Lets have a look at a Swedish subdivision. The houses here are all being built by Sävsjö Trähus whose designs we've just been posting in the idea log. Scott Hedges pointed this out. He writes:

This web page shows 5 houses built by Sävsjö Trähus all sold out of the Solna office. Solna is a really nice suburb of Stockholm where Ericsson is HQ (also where Skanska is) - these are all examples of the kind of houses that would be built by wealthy Swedes, executives in these companies.

Each of these was made by the same crew of guys in central småland. Each built, loaded, and shipped in a few days each, as part of a serial production of around 100 house packages like this a year. Not a lot of sophisticated automation or fixed systems, just teamwork and good planning. All built on their flexible little flip table in central smalland and carted up to suburban stockholm.

They could care less what style or kind of house they build. They just want it to be what you want and be affordable. Severe modern, ultra traditional, mildly traditional, mildly modern ... it just doesn't matter. They have every possible style of house that is reasonable for people to build.

Sign here. We'll send the permit drawings, and ship the whole house in a few weeks.

so you see nice traditional Swedish vernacular like this above, but you also see their functional modern style like this below:

No problem. Why wouldn't you do this if you could. Well they can. This is MMC and OSM. This is what it is capable of. Each of these homes was just as profitable as the next, because their process is geared up to serve the customer what they want. It is style neutral and value bias - whatever builds the most value for the customer leads the process. Forcing a buyer who wants a modern house to choose a traditional house clearly does not build value for that customer.

Are you mad? Are you ready yet, ready to not take it anymore?


  1. the proof is in the pudding as they say, living in Vegas, EVERYTHING looks the same. Beige on beige with a hint of beige or brown. Stucco here, stucco there, a little more stucco and it's a "house". It's more like solidified puke.

    Now, with that said, the builders that still have work are the ones that do custom work, cause they actually know what their doing. All the others, they're out of work, cause building a standard house that every tom-dick-and-harry in this city owns could be built by a chimp. And yes, the quality is similar to something a chimp would build.

    Frustrating is an understatment. Madening is putting it mildly.

    btw Greg, i'm surprised you're not using Revit and so dependent on Sketchup.

  2. Its a strategy that serves everybody but the customer. Its good for builders if all they have to build is the same house as everybody else - less risk of building something unpopular. Its good for the realtors if every house is the same - makes sales easier if no house is any different from another. Its good for banks and lenders if all houses are the same - keeps things as liquid as possible. But its lousy for the customer, especially if your taste leans to something modern. The industry does not have the customer's concerns as their first priority.

    Revit, no. I lump Autodesk in with Microsoft - a company I prefer not to do business with. I'm not dependent on Sketchup, rather enabled I'd say.

  3. what do you use for your CD's? ever looked into ArchiCAD?

  4. Be glad to chat about it - email me, its off topic for my blog.

  5. But what do WE do? WE, as the customer, do have the final say with our dollars, but only in withholding them as a sale. We can't force the investment of new building processes or the change of building codes. Hell, just enforcing the codes we already HAVE would be a refreshing change!

    Yeah, I'm coming off as a Debbie Downer but, while I think the the Swedish model looks absolutely brilliant and would love to participate, there's no choice or access for me to do so on this side of the pond. Aside for custom build, with its attendent higher costs, there doesn't seem to be much movement to optimise systems into this general direction.

    Would it be a good idea? Of course. It looks to me like an obviousity. Do I have a factory implement it? No. Can I force someone to do it for me? Can't see it. Can we insist on it in our building codes? I don't see how. Even now, the R2000 house is unusual let alone some of those innovations like the foundation system.

    Damn. I've now depressed myself. :( There's got to be an answer. It's tiring to keep inventing the wheel when you want something done right.

  6. There is not much the consumer can do, so don't beat yourself up. But note that the little you can do is very important.

    Its unrealistic for all of us who want change to expect every modern house fan to over-spend to get a modern house. We can't expect you to go out and hire an architect, or even suffer through a custom build process with a set of modern house plans. I'm grateful that some do it, but its a difficult process at best and not everybody can do it.

    So what can you do?

    Number one is wear your preference on your sleeve. Print out images of your favorite houses and pin them up in your workstation, magnet them to your frig, post links in your blog, engage your friends and coworkers about your preferences - let it be know you want a modern house and the industry does not deliver.

    If you end up buying a house through the typical channels, then make sure your builder/developer hears it from you - I'm buying this but this is the type of house I'd really like to have. Give them images, send them links, explain to them why they should offer more than traditional. If the agree to work with you to modernize one of their standard houses, then bust their balls about why it should cost more than any other house.

    Live your preference, get it out of the closet. That is all you can do, and perhaps the most important thing that anybody can do.

    For my part - I will continue to offer modern house plans. I wish I could offer them cheaper, but I need to offer them at a price that allows me to create them.

    I will continue to pursue the creation of a true swedish like business model for building houses here in the US. It will never happen over night, if it happens at all, but I believe in it, I believe that superior tech in building houses ultimately pays off in greater design opportunity = opportunity for modern houses. Don't hold your breath, but continue watching as we fight to realize this here.

  7. Hey Greg,

    been looking for this link for a while...

    For those in Austin,
    this might be right up their alley.

  8. Yes, Agave is a development dedicated to modern houses. I greatly appreciate efforts like this because their success is evidence that there is demand for modern homes and that builders should be offering them. While Agave is not alone, this and others like them are certainly the exception to the housing industry at large.

    So while I am grateful for their existence, it is no substitute for wanting a world where you can have a modern home anyplace where houses are being built. On the face of it that sounds like an outrageous expectation, but its not. The one thing we can take away from the Swedish housing industry is that it is entirely possible for the entire spectrum of housing producers to have modern houses among the range of designs they offer, and for that to be a profitable strategy. It is not outrageous at all, and I will never retreat from that expectation.