Prefabs

I’m cheap and I’ve long been fascinated with technological changes that help make things more affordable, like Mr. Ford’s famous Flivver (the Model T) or the “peoples car” (a Volkswagen).  So a short National Public Radio piece on the new exhibit at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) caught my attention.

On a vacant lot adjacent to the Museum, there is an exhibition called Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling. Organized by Barry Bergdoll, the museum’s chief curator of architecture and design, and curatorial assistant Peter Christensen, the show explores the story of the prefabricated house.

The idea, of course, is that centralized assembly-line construction is an efficient way to build things but it took technological innovations, like Thomas Edison’s single-pour concrete system or Wachsmann and Gropius’ General Panel System, to make it feasible.

The history of prefabricated buildings goes back a long way.  Unsure of whether the new land of Australia would have enough materials for his son to build a home, H. Manning designed his “Portable Colonial Cottage for Emigrants” in 1830 with easily shippable flat panels.  And it cost £15. The components were precut so they could be stored in the ship’s hull and dozens were sold to Australians during the following years.  The housing shortage in Chicagoinspired Augustine Taylor to design “balloon frame” houses of 2x4s and 2x6s with sheathing over the frame which replaced the mortised beam fittings then popular and, as you know, that’s how most of our houses are built today. Drywall was a technological innovation to eliminate the cost of lathe and plaster.

The Ford Motor Company demonstrated how assembly-line manufacturing could produce a “ready-made home” in 1919 but the most successful of these were the mail-order kit homes sold by Sears, Roebuck and Company.  Between 1908 and 1940, Sears shipped more than 70,000 mail order homes which included all the materials (including shingles, flooring and paint) to build a home.   There were 447 different styles and they cost between $650 and $2500 ($14,000 to $53,000 in today’s dollars).  Good thing it came with instructions, because it weighed 25 tons and had 30,000 parts.

In addition to this historical perspective, the MoMA exhibit includes 5 full size homes demonstrating how new materials and applications can create diverse styles and structures. There is a micro-compact home of just 76 square feet, a 5 story townhouse wrapped in cellophane, a “shotgun house” intended for disaster relief areas, one built from 570 square foot components that let the home grow as the owner’s family grows and a computer designed house built of plywood and steel that lets the architect and owner choose their design simultaneously.  Personally, I’m most intrigued by the “Digitally Fabricated Housing for New Orleans” because it is made with plywood panels, precut joints and notches and can be built using only a rubber mallet.

In 2003, Dwell magazine sponsored a prefab invitational to build an affordable home.  The winner, Resolution: 4 Architecture, won with a budget of $200,000 but their project eventually ran $50,000 more, forcing a smaller footprint to stay within budget.  The current cost of a prefab home is $175 to $250 a square foot, which is not keeping them cheap, since standard building buildings can run $100 to $130 a square foot (a lot depends on what you put inside). Rocio Romero from Perryville, MO, sells a flat-packed cube-like house kit for between $23,650 and $45,255. Most of us have seen the log-cabin kits when we’ve navigated up and down I-5.

For more information on the MoMA exhibit, you can go to http://www.momahomedelivery.org/ and for more information on prefabs in general, I suggest http://home.howstuffworks.com/prefab-house.htm.

A home for everyone may yet be a dream, but imagination, innovation and technology are making it more possible.