The Prefab Decade
Back in 1999, I applied for a position as the editor of a new magazine. As part of the application process, I had to dream up the contents of a sample issue. "Let’s say the issue’s theme is Mass Production," I wrote in my proposal. "The premise is that the notion of manufactured housing keeps coming back. It is the ultimate modernist fantasy. It’s an idea that has intrigued (and more or less defeated) Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, and other less illustrious characters." I outlined a series of features that would open with a photo taken inside a mobile-home manufacturing facility or a shot of a double-wide rolling down the highway on the back of a truck. "We accompany that image with a brief essay that asks why the dream of mass-produced housing always turns into a nightmare," I wrote. "Why don’t the factories that turn out Alessi products, or, for that matter, Airstream trailers, make good houses?"
The new magazine, of course, was Dwell. And in the fourth issue, dated April 2001, I executed the scheme I’d outlined. It was the first prefab issue, kicking off a long love affair between this magazine and one particular strategy for making good, modern architecture more accessible to the American home buyer.
That Dwell became the progenitor of a new American prefab movement (something that mostly happened after I left in 2002) can be attributed to an accident of timing. Shortly before the Dwell vetting process kicked into high gear, I’d had a conversation with a pair of New York architects, Sulan Kolatan and Bill MacDonald, who showed me a design for a house in Connecticut. Typical of the late 1990s, the form of the house was a weird, amorphous, computer-generated blob. The most unusual thing about it, though, was the architects’ theory about how it would be built: They planned to fabricate it from curvilinear fiberglass modules that would be supplied by a boat manufacturer. Cooler still, the architects’ goal was to use this house as a prototype, the first in a series of digitally designed, factory-made, affordable homes. It sounded great. But a year or so later, when I called the architects to find out how the house was coming along and whether Dwell could publish it, I learned that the project had never gotten off the ground. The idea of piecing together a house from boat hulls, as clever as it was, turned out to be wildly impractical.
This bedazzlement, the fairy dust that’s kicked up when architects dream of mass production, is the typical story of residential prefab in this country. It’s certainly the tale told by Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, a landmark exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last year. Home Delivery was a fascinating historical pageant, stretching from Thomas Edison’s early 20th-century scheme to build a "single pour" concrete house, to the little pitched-roof cottages Walter Gropius designed for a German copper manufacturer, to the precast concrete boxes of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, built for Montreal’s Expo ’67, to the myriad contemporary experiments that will be familiar to regular readers of this magazine.
Most of the examples on display achieved, at best, limited success.Edison built 100 of his concrete houses in Union, New Jersey. Approximately 14 of the Gropius-inspired copper houses were erected in Palestine in the 1930s as homes for Jewish settlers. Safdie’s Habitat is a true landmark, still lived in today, but is also one-of-a-kind. On the museum walls, I kept reading variations on the same phrase: "Yet none of them were commercially successful." "Despite numerous efforts, the system never took off." "Just under 2,500 houses were produced before the company went bankrupt in 1951."
The story told by the MoMA exhibit is one of thrilling creativity and innovation that ultimately leads nowhere. A century of dead ends. And this sense that the prefab approach to housing is a recurring novelty is reinforced by curator Barry Bergdoll’s choice of contemporary projects. Adam Kalkin’s fetching little buildings made from shipping containers get a generous slice of wall space, as does Teddy Cruz’s admirable—and quite beautiful—Maquiladora structural system, intended to help residents of Tijuana better use waste materials in their building projects. Both are intriguing, but neither is likely to have much real impact on the ways that most Americans buy and build homes.
Outside, in the vacant lot next door to the museum, the most impressive of five full-size houses on display was the Cellophane House, by Philadelphia-based firm KieranTimberlake. It’s a transparent four-story stack of minimalist modules framed with an off-the-shelf aluminum scaffolding system by Bosch Rexroth and partially clad in a plastic film the architects call NextGen SmartWrap™. This is a project designed specifically for Home Delivery, not to be confused with the KieranTimberlake design that is now being marketed by the California-based modular home builder Living-Homes. Likewise, the stripped-down System3 house, a sleek shoe box of a house designed by Austrian firm Kaufmann/Ruf Architects, and Burst*008, the wildly complex and computer-generated beach house by Jeremy Edmiston and Douglas Gauthier, were designed and handcrafted specifically for the exhibition. By commissioning these houses, the exhibit’s curators ensured that MoMA would feature one-of-a-kind artifacts that could be seen nowhere else. But prefab isn’t about one-of-a-kind. On the contrary, the whole point is to generate multiples.
You could easily walk away from the MoMA show without realizing that there is a growing number of firms, mostly headed by architects, that are marketing prefabricated homes. None of these commercially available models was on display at MoMA. Of course, the prefab architects in this country are not exactly engaged in mass production. Mostly they build their houses under a roof, rather than outdoors, and they tend to sell their houses in relatively small quantities. But I’ve come to realize that the prefab movement is actually not about mass production. It may not even be about production. The most significant accomplishment of the prefab architects is not how many houses they’ve built, but how they’ve transformed the culture of architecture. Traditionally, architects are trained to think of each building as a one-off. Indeed, the American Institute of Architecture argues, "Society is best served by public building designs that meet the unique and specific requirements inherent in each individual project." Though I understand the importance of site-specific design, this bias is one of the things that have alienated architects from the home-building industry. The prefab movement is a signal that a new generation of architects is comfortable with designs that can be used again and again.
If I were doing the same exercise now that I did in 1999, the theme of my proposed magazine issue wouldn’t be mass production, or even the trendier mass customization. Rather, it would be about the dissemination of architecture as pure information. The fascinating thing about the Cellophane House, for example, is that KieranTimberlake did an end run around an absence of manufacturing capability by sourcing off-the-shelf materials. It’s an exercise in transforming home building by developing not a factory but a sophisticated shopping list. The firm’s strategy is similar to what Brett Zamore of Zamore Homes in Houston is trying to accomplish: Instead of building his own factory, he has contracted with a network of home manufacturers and suppliers around the country who will execute his plans. Additionally, the same sorts of entrepreneurial spirits who embraced prefabrication are now looking closely at another, historically more successful, strategy: selling architecture in the form of stock plans. It’s another way of reducing the cost of a distinctive home by distributing the architect’s fee among many buyers.
Architects who have long operated like the bespoke tailors of Savile Row, enjoying complex one-on-one relationships with their clients, are lately becoming more like brands. It’s a trend you’ll see most clearly in ads for luxury condos. But maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. As the MoMA show demonstrates, high-overhead manufacturing schemes can easily go belly-up, but an architectural idea marketed and distributed as if it were Pinkberry might survive long enough to change the world.