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The Prefab Home Is Suddenly Fab

Many are made in BC. Are they a real housing solution? A Tyee Special Report.

Danielle Egan 31 May

Danielle Egan is contributing editor on The Tyee.

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Thirteen percent of US prefabricated homeowners listen to classical music while only eight percent attend monster truck shows. More than half of them find their living conditions very satisfactory thank you very much. More than half plan on living in their prefabs forever and very few of them will actually move their mobile homes.

This type of dwelling long associated with shifty rednecks has become a very hot trend among the economically mobile.

And a lot of the homes they find prefabulous are built here in BC.

Architects all over North America are dabbling in prefabricated housing, designing and manufacturing innovative dwellings out of the standard 16 x 45 foot box, a measurement designed for road capacity.

A mind-boggling array of stylish modernist prefabs are now available, including designs delivered complete to the site via trailer or tugboat, flat-packed house kits and even collapsible studios that can be moved via SUV and portable penthouses built to be flown from city rooftop to the country via helicopter. Weehouse, It House, Up! House, Bachkit, Smallhouse, Swellhouse, Corpod and Smartshax are just a few of the designer prefabs available.

Sizes and prices range from about $33,000USD for an LV-Home kit by Missouri-based Rocio Romero to as much as a million bucks.

Made in BC

“The units are like Lego blocks so you can built anything out of them and even stack them,” says Tom Faliszewski, the Housing Division manager of Britco Factory Built Buildings. Aggasiz-based Britco has been manufacturing all sorts of factory-built structures since 1977, from McDonald’s restaurants to schools to motels to those PNE “showhomes” with the banister porches.

You’re probably more familiar with Britco’s orange striped construction site offices, but 80 percent of their business is in manufactured housing. And they’re now building some of the most trendy modern architect-designed prefabs, like the Glidehouse, by San Francisco-based architect Michelle Kaufmann, who worked for Frank Gehry before going solo. That first Glidehouse was built at Britco in 24 days, wrapped up and shipped by trailer to California for a Sunset Magazine PR event. After a few days it was packed up again and sent north to its home plot on Lake Chelan, Washington; a third bedroom shipped from Britco joined the other units to make a 1,568 square foot 3 bedroom, 3 bathroom bungalow with tons of glass, an open-plan interior and sloped roof.

Glidehouse looks like a custom-built west coast modernist home from the 1960s. But prefabs have to withstand travel and go through “150 quality control checkpoints during building,” according to Faliszewski. “It has to be 100 percent perfect and flush because you can’t adjust like you can on a custom built. And they have super high energy efficiency and there’s no chance for moisture to get in” since the units are made under a factory roof.

Earth friendly features

These prefabs are also eco-friendly and use low viscosity paints, a foamed-in insulation system that doesn’t mould, heat recovery systems and hepa-filters. On-site construction waste is greatly minimalized as well and most prefabs include optional “green” touches like bamboo flooring, solar or hybrid power systems and recycled materials. All of these features are appealing to mid-to-upper-class modernist types who shudder at the thought of living in a cookie-cutter in the ‘burbs, but can’t find affordable modernist architect-designed dwellings. “We lived in a 60s modern in Colorado,” says Peter Johnson, a Colorado native who’s designed a 3,600 square foot prefab for his land on Salt Spring Island which will be built at Britco. “I was a huge fan of modern, but, man, once I lived in it, this is way too hard. There was too much glass and it was so stark. We wanted something warm and inviting.”

So Johnson started looking into prefab and decided to design his own west coast modern dream-house. Called BC House, it’s made from eight prefab units with a “site-built pie in the middle. It’s a prototype custom design so the price comes in at around $185 per square foot.”

But the price tag hasn’t scared Johnson off prefab and he’s now collaborating with other BC companies in the construction industry “to promote BC to the forefront of modular housing. We will develop design materials and production efficiencies for future volume building with a goal of delivering at between $125 and $175 per square foot. Marketing and promotions will be leveraged via our strategic partnerships and eventually our proprietary process that will serve to simplify the design/build process and redefine modular building as a sensible option.”

Sensible for affluent people with plots of land hanging around maybe, but it does conjure a picture of pristine landscapes eaten up by occasionally occupied sleek glass houses. Imagine the Gulf Islands -- already experiencing sky-high land prices and sky-high rents so that middle-to-lower income families, trades people and retirees who grew up on the islands can’t afford to live there -- overrun with stylized double-wides.

The two Glidehouses purchased by Vancouver clients will be shipped to plots in Point Roberts and the Sunshine Coast. Sure, they tend to disturb the land less, leave a smaller footprint and cut down on construction waste, but they also make second homes more attainable to a wider audience and since the price tag is lower, could spur clients into building bigger.

Potential for the poor

Some architects are designing for dense urban settings, like Piercy Conner’s 340 square foot “Micro Flats” being built in London or the stackable Corpod prototype designs by Chicago architect Douglas Garofalo. But prefabs aren’t generally being smacked down where they’re needed most: cities and suburbs. Well-designed prefabs are too expensive for families who would benefit most from this cheaper, energy-efficient type of housing.

“Social planning in architecture has been dead since the Reagan-Thatcher era,” says Sandy Hirshen, an architect with Henriquez Partners and retired director of The UBC School of Architecture. “I’ve been working on prefab since 1965. My focus has always been the rural poor,” says Hirshen who designed and built dozens of dwellings for seniors, migrant farm workers and aboriginals using everything from folded paper ‘Plydomes’ to shipping containers (which he got cheap from military surpluses after the Vietnam war) to insulated fridge panels.

“Most of my ideas died on the vine,” Hirshen continues. “Prefab never took off in the States mostly because unions and banks traditionally didn’t want to link themselves to housing not attached to the ground. Developers don’t make much money from building the structures -- they make it by densifying land and getting low interest rates. They don’t like to pay for design so cookie-cutters are the way.”

Hirshen is sceptical about the new craze for prefab, citing three divergent goals for prefab enthusiasts: “housing the poor well; co-housing [a group of individuals buy land and build to suit their collective needs]; housing the super rich who want a house in a hurry in some ski area.” Hirshen’s never been interested in building for the super-rich and has only done about 12 custom homes in 40 years, finding these experiences were “fraught with land mines and interpersonal problems.”

He’s interested in co-housing as a counter to “hopeless suburban sprawl” but Hirshen continues to hold hope that prefab becomes viable for lower-incomes since “every week something like a million people need housing and you can’t fill that need with conventional housing.” He’s been talking with the Vancouver chapter of Habitat for Humanity about adapting his prefab “Flexible Hybrid Home” to their Burnaby project. He also does university lecture tours about socially conscious architecture and believes emerging architects are now less likely to fall for “the stranglehold of high architecture by media heroes.”

‘Soft housing’

Two architects of the sort Hirshen is rooting for work in Vancouver: Todd MacAllen and Stephanie Forsythe. “I’m not into custom-building for upper middle class people. I don’t know if that’s really helpful to anyone else,” says MacAllen. He and Forsythe have been focusing their talents on a cultural centre in Aomori, Japan and recently won a competition to co-design a former flophouse in New York using inventive space-saving concepts like their “Soft Housing”: light-weight, moveable paper-based accordion-like walls for use in small places, particularly for shared living spaces and shelters for the homeless.

They’ve also designed a 675 square foot prefab called Maison Mini. “We started looking at prefab because our first experiences in architecture were with building custom houses.” The two architects literally built their designs themselves, camping out on-site. “With one-offs you realize toiling day after day in mud and rain; construction is a really sloppy business. If you could do a lot of that in a dry clean space, things could be more precise, economical and efficient.”

A key priority for MacAllen and Forsythe is in keeping their prefab small. “North Americans still want everything big,” says MacAllen. “We’re so used to spreading our stuff around. The dream is to live in a big house and 2,000 square feet is not that big. Our small-scale housing in BC is pretty abysmal, terribly designed for small space living. It seems like they’re modeled after a real estate criteria from 25 years ago; you have to say you’ve got 3 bathrooms, I don’t know why they need all these toilets.”

Other prefabricators are less likely to question why their clients need so many toilets and seem to be drifting into larger and larger prefabs. Like Resolution: 4 Architecture, the firm that won a 2003 Dwell Magazine prefab competition. The rules were to build a prefab for approximately $175,000 with a strong “aesthetic, environmental, economic and technologic” design. When the “Dwell Home” was finished it weighed in at 2042 square feet, had three-bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms and cost more than $200,000 even with donated labour and materials.

Modernist retro

The prefab industry has been riding highs and lows as far back as the early 1900s when various companies, including Sears Roebuck, offered catalogued-based home kits.

Britco has managed to keep on by offering a diverse portfolio of high-quality housing and offices to countries all over the world. In terms of architect-designed prefab, they are a bit of an exception among manufacturers, at least partly because Faliszewski is an architect by trade and appreciates modernist sensibilities.

No doubt about it, the sleek lines of mid-21st century modernism are a large part of prefabs’ current appeal. “I think that there is a true interest in reviving modernism,” says MacAllen. “But at the same time so much of it is just a look, an aesthetic. The true heart of modernism isn’t there. Even the most respected trade magazines show houses with 2,500 square feet or more. I don’t think that’s modernism, that’s a real estate agent’s dream.”

MacAllen notes that famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright championed smaller scale living in the suburbs, with a little garden and shared facilities. “His Usonian Homes were small practical modern homes with a lot of prefabrication.” Similarly today in Japan, says MacAllen, “there’s a whole whack of young architects building small architecturally designed houses with prefabrication. It’s not fancy, doesn’t try to look beautiful but utilitarian with shared continuous spaces that share a visual connection. I think that’s where modernism is sitting right now.”

The Japanese have been forced to go smaller and prefab because of high land and construction costs but MacAllen believes “we could learn from that now. Why wait?”

Prefab, Ikea style

Prefab housing has been used in Japan and Europe since the post-WW II re-building era. Japan has fully-automated home factories including Toyota’s prefab Housing Corporation and four other large housing conglomerates specializing in prefab steel and panel homes. Interestingly, even with all their high-tech bells and whistles, the Japanese import as much as 40 percent of their prefab housing from Canadian manufacturers like Britco, which does use assembly-line methods but with traditional construction with wood, hammer and nails.

Robotics-infatuated Japan could also provide us with a good cautionary tale about rushing into high-tech home-building. Since the bubble economy burst in the 90s, the prefab industry has been particularly hard-hit. It peaked in 1992 when 17.8 percent of housing starts were prefab; sales steadily declined until 2003 when the drop in prefab housing starts was more dramatic than the decline in general housing starts.

Japanese prefab homeowners have also expressed dissatisfaction with their prefabs, including problems with concrete cracks and effluorescence.

In Eastern Europe and the UK, low quality and poorly planned housing developments gave prefab a bad name, but a variety of more successful prefab housing schemes have cropped up recently.

In Spain and France, less than five percent of housing is prefab but in Sweden it’s a whopping 90 percent. No wonder Ikea got into the prefab market by not only designing “flatpack” one and two-bedroom homes but also entire communities with modernist prefab houses and apartments. Imagine the size of that Allen wrench!

There are now 45 BoKlok (Live Smart) prefab communities in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland and UK Ikeas plan to start selling them there soon. BoKlok’s are designed with Ikea’s Scandinavian minimalist ethos but they’re geared towards lower income families, particularly single-parent and so-called “micro-families.” Communities are designed with shared gardens, patterned for maximizing neighbourly contact and are resident-governed, much like Canadian co-ops. So, naturally, problems crop up and BoKlok residents have been denied use of satellite dishes and backyard walls which detract from the minimalist master plan.

Sticker shock

It’s hard to imagine a BoKlok type of housing development flying in Surrey or Mississauga where people buy their furniture at the Brick and are occasionally tempted to stick a little plastic dwarf on their lawn. Even a lot of strict minimalists prefer living downtown and, like many urban planners, believe in building upwards and releasing more land for communal parks and green spaces.

Then there’s the fact that mod prefabs tend to be too expensive even for the young, idealistic architects designing them. “Frank Gehry told our grad class that the problem with the younger generation is that no-one is interested in making monuments and that’s true,” says architect Jennifer Siegal of LA-based Office of Mobile Design. “I made a conscious decision not to be a hero working with large objects and I started re-thinking the trailer as that kind of architecture. Portable housing is a very different kind of thinking than how you’re trained in school. But architects can be involved in mass production and people can live in designer houses for half the cost.”

Siegal might be able to afford the prefab Portable House she designed and sells (an $80,000USD 480 square foot sleek corrugated metal structure) but she actually lives in a string of second-hand trailers. She’s influenced by everything from “nomadic enterprises,” to high-tech plastics to Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes and is particularly enchanted with the concept of a mod trailer park.

Besides selling her Portable House and Dwellhouse prefabs, she’s also working on a school and the development of a prefab artist community and a low-income housing co-op, both in downtown LA. She also is in the planning stages for a 400,000 square foot fully-automated prefab factory that will mass-customize designs by herself along with ten other “world-renowned architects,” including Zaha Hadid and Shigeru Ban. Siegal’s hope is to “change the face of architecture and make housing more like the auto industry.”

Given the many unattractive aspects of the auto industry, particularly in America where SUVs dominate and there’s been a recent nostalgia for 50s style cars, is this a good thing? Will mass-customized housing create landfills packed with last year’s model home? With more automation, more construction labourers will be jobless and what if these housing factories succumb to the temptation of profit-driven relocation?

New products for maquiladoras?

Some 15,000 Canadian auto industry workers have lost jobs since the 1990s, thanks largely to factories moving to Mexico. Now these maquiladoras are contemplating moves to South America to exploit even cheaper labour.

Teddy Cruz, a San Diego architect provides a sobering message at the current Design Innovations in Manufactured Housing exhibition in Chicago.

The show features all sorts of innovative designs for everything from single-family homes to stackable apartment prototypes. But the exhibition organizers concede that at this point, these expensive prototypes are geared to the affluent looking for new toys. Co-curator Roberta Feldman pointed out that the costs could only drop with mass-production and she wonders why we don’t crank out housing in factories modeled after… you guessed it, the auto industry.

Cruz takes us across the border to Mexico, where the auto industry is the largest employer and pays workers between $3 and $4 per hour. Workers can’t afford housing and like over 800 million people in the world (and a quarter of the Latin American population) they’re squatters. Cruz looks at the shantytowns of Tijuana where squatters build makeshift housing out of refuse they cart from San Diego: fridge doors, factory pallets, tarps, whatever they can get their hands on. He proposes to hook San Diegan non-profits up with the Mexican government so that pre-assembled housing kits can be made available to the maquiladora industry “to give back to the communities it exploits.”

Doing it right

Gigantic US petrochemical conglomerate 3DM Worldwide recently signed a licensing agreement with Chicago-based Silkwood Financial Group to build modular housing, using various plastics technologies, in Mexico. They’ve also started on a development of “modular housing for workers in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Somalia and Namibia.” There’s a terrible irony in these schemes, considering that so much of Africa has been devastated by the petrochemical industry which is one of the top environmental polluters in the world.

Let’s hope that the mod prefab architects think long and hard about whether it’s possible to “mass-customize” ethically and with as much environmental and social consciousness as possible. Consider the implications to other cultures, not just the affluent local target-market.

And while we’re on the subject of targeting, last November, Iraqi “Freedom Fighters” bombed an American prefab housing factory in the ‘burbs of Baghdad. Apparently the US military uses prefab extensively in their encampments.

Danielle Egan is a freelance writer living in Vancouver.  [Tyee]

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