The sticker price is not the only sign of affordability. Rocio Romero’s prefab homes come in kit form, allowing the buyer to decide how much to participate in the onsite assembly process. A buyer can hire a contractor or work with some generous friends and a bit of gumption to build the house him or herself. Subsidizing the cost of the house through the provision of labor makes home ownership attainable for some people, creating sweat equity along the way.
Want to take your home with you? If so, your prefab will need a chassis and some wheels, making it a close cousin of the mobile home (or "manufactured home," in building industry parlance). The HOM product from KAA Design Group in Los Angeles is an example of a relocatable architecture product, as is the miniHome from Sustain Design Studio. Although technically related to the trailer home, these sharp-looking houses are from a very different part of the family tree.
The KT line from KieranTimberlake and LivingHomes is designed to fit easily on urban infill lots. A reconfigurable design allows you to add rooms and entire floors as your living needs change. One model features 19-foot ceilings in the family room.
While only mobile homes actually have wheels attached, many prefabs are designed to be transportable, though some can be relocated more easily than others. System 3 by Oskar Leo Kaufmann and Albert Rüf features modules and components that fit perfectly inside a cargo container, which acts like a steel shipping sleeve. The modules are combined with Austrian precision, resulting in a structure that almost resembles fine furniture.
Some prefabs feature fixed floor plans while others are customizable, designed for a specific client and utilizing a defined methodology, such as steel- or timber-frame modular construction. Custom projects are usually more expensive, but the final design is unique. These homes are available from many companies, including Hive Modular, Marmol Radziner Prefab, and Resolution: 4 Architecture.
Many architects now specify materials derived from recycled products, such as insulation made with discarded denim. Logical Homes use repurposed cargo containers as steel-frame modules, thus combining the benefits of recycling and prefab. A customizable skin system keeps the container surfaces under wraps, for those who don’t want to feel at sea when at home.
Prefab home factories produce far less waste than traditional job sites, making prefab lower impact by definition. Several prefab companies, including Michelle Kaufmann Designs, are now raising the bar above and beyond the inherent sustainability of the process, using renewable materials and integrating efficient technologies.
In Japan, digital design and automated fabrication is employed at Toyota Home (yes, Toyota also makes homes), Matsushita’s PanaHome division, and Sekisui House, offering high levels of dimensional accuracy. The homes vary in style from modern interpretations of classic forms to sleek shelter products that resemble the style of Muji—-another company that markets prefab homes in Japan.
Michael Sylvester is a writer who lives in both Los Angeles and an aisle seat, preferably in the exit row. On his pilgrimage to Dan Rockhill's Studio 804 in Lawrence, Kansas, to see its fabled prefab projects, he was feeling a bit self conscious being a Left Coast vegetarian in steak country. "In addition to their cool prefabs, there was a great vegan restaurant downtown. Who doesn't enjoy mixing good architecture with good food?" he says.