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An Introduction to Prefab

The basic principle of prefab, whereby a home is fabricated in one location and then delivered to another, has been around for at least a few hundred years.
Prefab 101-intro-illustration
Prefab Parlance: From Kynar and Galvalume to SIPs, the terminology associated with prefab construction can be daunting. We asked a handful of architects and designers to help us build a prefab glossary of the top terms and definitions related to modular housing. Illustration by Tim Tomkinson

An early example, the Manning Portable Colonial Cottage, provided the means for reliable shelter in British colonial outposts located far from 
anything that might have resembled 
a Victorian-era Home Depot.

Between 1908 and 1940, Sears, Roebuck, and Company sold over 70,000 prefabricated house kits by 
mail to enterprising do-it-yourselfers across North America. These ready-to-assemble homes featured precut wooden components cross-referenced to a blueprint. Thanks to robust engineering, durable materials, and some good craftsmanship, many of these homes are still in use.

After World War II the United States faced a severe housing shortage, and several ventures attempted to use industrialized factory-built housing to solve the crisis, including Lustron Homes and the General Panel Corporation. The Eames House, in Pacific Palisades, California (1949), 
explored the idea that a home could be constructed from off-the-shelf 
industrial parts and harness economies of scale for ready-made components.

In the 1970s the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sponsored Operation Break-through, which advocated the use of factory-based industrialization and mass production in the national home-building industry as a way to drive down costs and make housing more affordable. Unfortunately, Operation Breakthrough did not break through, and the entrenched method of site-building homes remained in place.

Throughout the 20th century, the promise of prefab captivated architects and designers. Luminaries like Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, and Buckminster Fuller were among many who experimented with prototypes intended for mass production—–a goal none of them achieved.

The last decade has seen a resurgence of interest in prefab as entre-
preneurial architects redefine the architect-client relationship around 
a product-based business rather than a service-based practice. Most of today’s models are manufactured in small quantities to the same codes and with similar materials to site-built houses.
The most widely cited benefit of 
prefab is economy of scale, as compo-
nents or entire homes can be produced 
in large quantities. But this is not a 
prerequisite for success. There’s value in faster project schedules, fewer weather delays, and more efficient use of materials thanks to optimization and quality control. One of the primary benefits for the buyer is predictability: Predefined design details and construc-
tion processes give the client a degree of surety about the outcome that 
is often absent in custom projects.

  • prefab 101 thumbnail

    101 Prefab

    Everything you wanted to know about prefab but were afraid to ask! We've tapped the brain behind popular web resource FabPreFab to explain the birds and bees of manufactured housing.

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In theory prefab construction sounds great. From my experiences in actually building one, it's the worst idea ever! Typically you are dealing with a design company and a prefab factory. Both play the blame game regarding responsibilities of construction details and warranty. Architects love them because of this large grey area of responsibility. When something happens (and it will) everyone points the other direction and runs. Costs went through the roof. To sum up, the house took longer to build, it costed a lot more $$$,$$$.$$, I have no one to call for warranty items, and the list goes on and on, and on, seriously. Never again!!!! Don't get fooled. "If it sounds to good to be true, it is"

I'm planning on the next purchase for a home and I would like some information on prefabricated homes. Can you help me please. Thank you, David

I would love a comment by Dwell to "Robert 03/04/2009"'s comment above.



Which prefab company did you use? I would like to know so that if I do end up going this way in the end that I might know who to avoid.


I can understand Robert's frustration but you can't just "curse" the system simply because it didn't work out for you. Did he do his homework by investigating the architect's/designer experience in prefab and the manufacturer reputation? There are numerous of beautiful prefab homes built around the world you couldn't tell the difference. Be proactive, after all it's your home.

As home designers, we have a great deal of experience in dealing with fabricators. The good fabricators have facilities and trained crews similar to, or in conjunction with truss manufacturing. Do your homework - ask for a factory tour if possible as well as references. I know there are some "kits" that I would avoid but by doing your homework you can choose a fabricators that is doing it right and will provide you with a house that is far more square and true than anything that can be stick-framed on site.

Prefab works. I worked for a prefab company and we built large scale projects faster than site built competitors. Although most of the work was commercial (hotels, retirement complexes, condos etc.) we also banged out dozens of Habitat homes and award winning designed projects (see

The facts are simple. Good design that is manufactured in a controlled environment increases efficiency, cuts down labour and material and allows for better quality control. With good communication between designers, builders and owners, prefab is the better option hands down.

I deeply sympathize with Robert and believe his point is well warranted. Yes, you can blame the system. One of the implied warranties as a product for which it was intended, is that the "process" does work, implied and express. So, Robert is absolutely right.

Many of the fabricators seem to be more interested, in shopping malls, schools and warehouse facilities in urban outer fringes than with independent residential small scale housing unless it is a sub development. Because that is where the money is.

I would love to be able to afford a prefab house and have for years.