November 1, 2013 6:44 pm

Architecture: Factory-built prefabs get the homemade touch

New design techniques help to reconcile mass production with individual artistic spirit
Breezehouse in California, designed by Blu Homes©John Swain

Breezehouse with pool in Healdsburg, California, designed by Blu Homes

A stressful attempt to build an extension to his home in Boston, Massachusetts, led Bill Haney to launch a business designed to help others avoid the same frustrations. The extension, built using traditional construction methods and materials, turned out “to be unmanageable in terms of cost and schedule”, says the 50-year-old. And so five years ago Haney co-founded Blu Homes, a prefabricated-property business with the aim of manufacturing architect-designed, environmentally friendly, factory-built homes.

Constructed in a factory before being transported to site, prefab properties have long offered the promise of a better way to construct modern homes. In the early 20th century, architects saw a future where houses, like cars, could be built on the assembly line. But schemes designed by leading architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright never succeeded in being mass-produced, beset from the start by technological problems and prohibitive costs as well as being ahead of their time in design terms.

Instead, it was the lower end of the market – with the kit houses of Sears, Roebuck and Company in the US, and the emergency prefab housing created in postwar Britain during the 1940s – that prevailed, establishing prefab’s image of ugly homes built using cheap materials.

But today there are a number of companies developing new techniques that aim to address the problems of the past, helping to bring high-quality, energy-efficient and affordable prefab properties to a wider market. According to a recent report by the research company Global Industry Analysts, the global prefab house market will reach 829,000 units by 2017. Intrinsic to the idea of prefab housing is serial production. But computerised customisation has made it possible to design and manufacture non-identical objects, to reconcile mass production with an individual artistic spirit.

Blu Homes, for example, has developed a new piece of technology called the “configurator” – an online design tool that enables people to create a detailed 3D impression of their chosen home and to obtain a fixed price and construction timeline.

Breezehouse, with a starting price of $540,000, excluding site costs©John Swain

Breezehouse, with a starting price of $540,000, excluding site costs

Blu Homes has also developed building tools allowing properties to be completed in the factory right down to bathroom fittings, plumbing and electrics. The house then folds down like a piece of origami to be easily transported to site where the company’s construction team lays it on its foundations in as little as a day before completing the finishing touches.

Blu Homes builds its properties in a factory in Vallejo, near San Francisco, and has doubled its business year on year since it was founded in 2008, according to Haney. Last year it received $40m in bookings and it is on track to double that this year.

The company’s models range from a studio to a four-bedroom house with prices between $190 and $350 per sq ft. This includes a dedicated designer, project manager and house appliances. Taking into account the additional costs of land, foundations, site work and optional upgrades, the properties can cost up to $850 per sq ft.

Connect:Homes, an architecture firm based in Los Angeles, offers prefab homes starting at $190 per sq ft, including delivery, installation, and eco-conscious finishes such as recycled bottle glass worktops and sustainable wood flooring.

“We want to take high-quality prefab mainstream,” says Gordon Stott, who co-founded the company last year with Jared Levy after working together at LA-based architecture firm, Marmol Radziner Prefab. They spotted a gap in the market for affordable, sophisticated prefab housing. “At Marmol Radziner Prefab, we were getting calls from around the world, but we found that shipping a prefab home more than 200 miles was cost-prohibitive,” says Stott.

Connect:Homes has driven down those costs by creating housing modules that can be transported like shipping containers via truck, rail or ship to most places around the world.

Connect:Homes' prefab home in California©Joe Fletcher

Two-bedroom prefab home in Sonoma, California, designed by Connect:Homes

The company’s first line of modern, sustainable homes, called the Connect series, is made up of two to eight modules and are 90 per cent completed in the factory in order to maintain quality control and to restrict the need for costly site work.

Architect Michelle Kaufmann has also tried to address the often prohibitive cost of prefab homes. She ran her own company in LA, designing individual prefab houses before the firm fell victim to the recession in 2009. Now based in San Francisco, Kaufmann co-founded Vannevar Technology where she works with software engineers on prefab technology that aims to address housing shortages in overpopulated urban areas.

“Prefab multifamily dwellings [such as flats and townhouses] are necessary to support population growth in cities,” she says. The World Health Organisation estimates that, by the middle of the 21st century, the world’s urban population will almost double from approximately 3.4bn in 2009 to 6.4bn in 2050. “There are already so many people who don’t have access to shelter or healthy, durable homes . . . I want to make it easier, less expensive and faster to build [them],” says Kaufmann.

Working with major developers in the US, China, India and Brazil, she says that technological advances in the prefab industry can have significant cost and environmental benefits, leading to less waste and increased quality control.

“You can achieve 50-75 per cent less waste in a factory through a combination of precision cutting and storage capacity for recycling building materials,” says Kaufmann. “With technologies such as overhead crane systems, you can build a roof on the factory floor rather than hanging 20ft off scaffolding on site, achieving better detailing and avoiding costly mistakes. There are also time and cost savings in having the same, highly-skilled team every day in the factory rather than a stream of casual labourers.”

Allison Arieff, the former editor of US architecture magazine Dwell and the co-author of Prefab (2002), agrees that multi-unit developments – which may mix residential and commercial uses – are the best application of prefab technology.

“I’ve seen very little evidence that people are saving money building single family prefab homes,” says Arieff. “It’s like using a factory to build one car. There is no economy of scale”.

“Building the same kind of home drives costs down,” says Steve Glenn, the founder and chief executive of LivingHomes, a prefab company based in Santa Monica, California. Having weathered the property recession, his company has sold twice as many homes in the past year than in the previous four combined.

This is partly due, says Glenn, to the company’s introduction of lower cost homes. It is now planning its first development: eight townhouses plus commercial space in partnership with an LA-based development company.

LivingHomes also offers upscale properties such as those designed for the company by California architect Ray Kappe. This series features light-filled, expansive rooms and sustainable natural materials, with prices starting at $589,000. Today’s market value of Glenn’s own award-winning, Ray Kappe-designed prefab home, built in Santa Monica in 2006, is approximately $3m.

While the US prefab market still lags behind those in countries like Sweden, Australia and Japan, it is making headway by offering consumers modern homes with a small carbon footprint and fewer of the headaches that are usually associated with building your own home.

Prefab has experienced false dawns before. Hopes are high that this time will be the real deal.

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Three of the best

A prefab home being lifted by helicopter in 1970©Getty

A prefab home being lifted by helicopter in 1970

1. In the 1940s, Walter Gropius, a German architect and founder of Bauhaus, teamed up with the German modernist architect Konrad Wachsmann, writes Aljosha Karim Schapals. Together, they came up with a concept called the “packaged house system” – a wooden property that could be easily assembled from simple standardised parts in less than a day. Reportedly, five untrained workers were all that was needed to put the house together. Although the concept was an impressive technical feat, the “packaged house system” was never an economic success and, in 1952, production was discontinued.

2. The Excalibur Estate in south London is a testament to the postwar attitude of make-do-and-mend. Today it is the largest existing collection of prefab housing in Europe, despite the fact that the 187 bungalows were originally intended to last for just 10 years. Built by German and Italian prisoners of war between 1945 and 1946, following London’s housing shortage after the Blitz, six of these modest homes were granted Grade II-listed status in 2009. However, the rest have since been marked for demolition; by 2018, the bungalows will be replaced with a multistorey development.

3. Originally known as Case Study No. 8, the Eames House in the Pacific Palisades region of Los Angeles was part of a residential experiment led by Arts and Architecture magazine. Between 1945 and 1966, renowned architects including Charles Eames were asked to think of new ways to build economically efficient housing. Using mainly prefabricated materials, Eames designed a home that would maximise living space using minimal materials (during the postwar period, building materials were scarce).

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