Home & Garden

About the House: Is It Time to Reconsider the Prefab Home?

By Matt Cantor
Wednesday January 28, 2009 - 07:31:00 PM

Berkeley is a city filled with “Custom Homes.” This is a term I hate, but in the absence of something better, there it will have to lay on the page, windless and mundane. To me, the term “custom home” brings to mind brochures filled with hackneyed images of rock jawed builders (plans rolled up under one arm, a pipe smoking in one hand) as they explain procedure and rectitude to their adoring clients. Custom homes are those that are built on site on an individual basis rather than as part of some larger group, tract or prefab model to be shipped out to an awaiting customer in Tuscaloosa. 

Unlike many communities, ours is one in which the majority of the houses had their own set of plans and were built on site with a minimum of premanufacturing involved. There are, however, notable exceptions, such as the marvelous premanufactured “built-ins” that inhabit many of our early 20th century homes. 

For most of us, the idea of something other than individually designed and built homes seems odd and, for some, even repellant. Visions of trailer parks come to mind for some of us and for others, images of the Levittowns of the late 40’s, which, while novel and popular in their time signify uniformity and lack of personal identity. People didn’t turn on, tune in and drop out in Levittown, did they? 

This notion of personal expression through our homes is somewhat recent for we Americans. In the past we were quite happy to ally ourselves with our neighbors in a common sense of architectural expression. I have to admit that I’m very much a part of the culture of the 1960s that ran screaming in the other direction and I myself fled the suburbs just as quickly as I could, seeking a life in which perfect houses were less important than personal ones. Again, this is merely one part of a social psychology that expresses itself in too many other ways to list, but certainly includes the ways we form families, dress ourselves, work and shop. 

Ours is a culture strongly oriented toward individuality. Some, such as Will Wright in Sixguns and Society, would even say a culture of outlaws. We like to think of ourselves as being bold and individual as we stand in line at the Sizzler, and our treatment and purchase of homes is no different. 

Sadly, one of the things that this has precluded, or at least inhibited has been the development of more affordable premanufactured housing. Again, this form tends to smack of a sort of uniformity that Americans don’t care for, but I would argue that we tend to build houses in a relatively uniform manner anyway, and fail (when we stick-build houses) to take advantage of the several ways in which factory premanufacturing can not only save us money, but potentially provide an improved product. 

Premanufacturing or kit-form housing has a long history and begins in this country with those, fleeing England to avoid religious persecution, who took their disassembled houses with them. (and you thought a second carry-on bag was expensive).  

Some historians cite the Gold Rush as the time when the first American kit houses are seen and many recall the Sears kit homes of the early 20th century (circa 1908), of which roughly 100,000 were sold and built. These Sears homes are a good example to study. Sold for a small fraction of the cost of a contemporary “custom” home, they offered quick assembly (with a pretty good 75 page instruction book) and excellent quality (many still stand today). 

Though kit houses fell from popularity in the 20s, the ending of the WWII created a huge need for housing and brought forth plenty of premanufactured contenders. These included modular homes prebuilt in sections and delivered to their sites in manageable chunks, manufactured housing (generally used as a euphemism for mobile, sectionalized housing—Think of single-wide, double-wide and even triple-wides) that would be delivered to a site and bolted together.  

There was even the trés “Forbidden Planet” Futuro from Finish architect Matti Suuronen. The Futuro looks something like a space ship with its squashed spheroidal shape annointed with a rim of ovaloid plastic windows (actually the whole thing is fiberglass reinforced polyester). Only about 100 of these were made so they were more whimsical experiment than a commercially practical offering. 

Not surprisingly, Buckminster Fuller, the geodesic dome guy (and self-promoter extraordinaire), had more than one market entry under his “Dymaxion” brand (which I liken to the various film and audio technologies of the 50’s such as “dynavision” and “megasonic” but what’s in a name). The dymaxion houses included a model designed to hang from a central mast by a series of cables cinched in place to minimize the impact of high winds and earthquakes. While fun and intriguing, this was one more model that did little more than explore the problems involved in modern human habitation. 

Another futuristically named house, the Lustrum was a bit more practical. They actually built over 2,500 of these in late the 1940s in a converted aircraft facility near Columbus, Ohio. Lustron owner, Carl Strandlund, had built prefab gas stations using metal fabricating techniques and applied these methods to single family houses. The buildings featured enameled steel for the various parts (inside and out), eliminating the need for painting and were promoted as being rodent-resistant and rust-proof. Apparent Lustrons still stand in 30 states evincing their viability though the company failed only two years after inception. It is posited by some that a band of competing builders conspired to kill Strandlund’s business in a manner comparable to the demise of Preston Tucker’s eponymous sedan. Owners of Lustrons claim that the enameled metal roofing shingles are still keeping their houses dry today proving that prefab isn’t necessarily low in quality. 

A client of mine last year showed me an add for Details, a California-based builder of what they call Prefab Green homes. Details builds prefab homes using what are called SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels), a common method for the manufacture of low cost prefab homes these days. SIPs are premade in the factory to specific sizes using oriented strand board (OSB) panels. These panels are themselves a factory-made product filled with one of several types of polyurethane foam, and utilizing very small chunks of wood (more fully exploiting each tree) that would have been garbage in the past. SIP are quite strong, low in cost and extremely good at retaining heat, making them quite green. In my never humble opinion, the jury is out on how these materials will affect the health of their inhabitants, but these materials seem promising, if mundane. They also seem destined to fail if not protected from moisture adequately, and so, good, basic building wisdom is required. Once again, there is no such thing as a perfect material (and one size never fits all). 

The really cool thing about Details is that they seem to be doing what virtually none of the other premanufacturers that I’ve seen have done. They have designed buildings using modern methods and very old fashioned designs. Somewhere around 1950, the pattern of the mass manufacture of houses took us on some sort of Jetsons track and led us through a series of hyper-modern (or what we considered to be modern) designs that eschewed the many important design features that had created cozy, dry, safe habitation over the last several hundred years. Elements such as eaves and deeply recessed windows, large casings and fat fascia boards. 

While these things speak to us subconsciously of an earlier time, they also serve practical functions that modern houses, having forgotten these lessons, suffer by lacking. Eaves protect walls and windows by shielding against pounding rain and excessive sunshine. Fatter casings, protect junctions more fully and by shear size, resist torque, sun and fungal decay. The same is true for the other large trims we find on older homes. 

Modernity is too often demarked by its nakedness. And while I enjoy the notion of deconstruction and of paring the object down to its essentials, I believe that we have failed to notice the value of what we were removing (don’t they say all the vitamins are in the peel). 

Christopher Alexander, whose book A Pattern Language, I have frequently mentioned in this space, speaks a large volume to this subject with his many Patterns such as “Thick Walls.” While Mr. Alexander might take offense at the idea of a foam and OSB house made by computer driven saws and routers (this is part of how these cheaper prefab houses are cut and shaped) being designed in accordance with his principles, I see this as the middle way and the answer to the question of how we proceed forward into what is inevitably a future populated by such strange creatures as SIPs and PreFabGreen homes. 

I’m quite sure that Gustav Stickley (1858-1942) would have been wildly offended (even more than Mr. Alexander) by the notion of SIPs, and in good “Craftsman” fashion, would have railed against the notion of premanufacturing houses. I suspect he would have found a Details home to be relatively attractive, if not fully aesthetically soulful. He might even have agreed that the fact that such a thing can be more readily presented to the lower classes by virtue of its cost, which would help to justify the offenses of it’s manufacture. Who can say? What I can say is that I believe that kit and premanufactured homes have a place in our economy and our world; that everyone cannot afford a “custom-built” home but does deserve an attractive, safe place to call home.  

My wish is that we continue to stir the pot and to mix new technologies (and test them hard) with designs that provide rich, pleasing spaces to their occupants and that we apply these forms to not just single family dwellings (which I believe are the dinosaurs of architecture) but to the varied multi-family or multi-person dwellings that will eventually overtake our built environment. 

Maybe one of you will be the first to live in a Details-like co-housing community, planned in a community meeting, carved by a computer in a factory, shipped to the site on a truck and popped together like leggos by your grandchildren. Far fetched? I don’t think Buckminster Fuller would have said so, nor Matti Suuronen, nor Carl Strandlund. 



Matt Cantor owns Cantor Inspections and lives in Berkeley. His column runs weekly. 

Copyright 2009 Matt Cantor