A prefab addition? Why not?


Having grown up in a construction family, I’m always pretty quick to defend the livelihoods of carpenters, masons, plasterers, plumbers and electricians who are out there building homes and remodels, working hard to make a living.

So I kind of cringe at the idea of building prefabricated homes and additions in factories. Now, these are not mobile homes I’m speaking of, built on a chassis. The prefab homes I’m thinking of are made in sections, or modules, and then brought to the site on flatbed trucks and moved with cranes onto foundations.

But after listening to a talk today by Sheri Koones, author of Prefabulous: The House of Your Dreams Delivered Fresh From the Factory (Taunton, 2007), I’m really warming to the idea.

Some advantages of building homes (or additions or second stories) in a factory environment are:

Less waste as cutoffs are used for other projects in the factory. And what’s left over can be sent back to the vendor for recycling, such as drywall. When materials get to a site, it’s harder to get waste anywhere other than the landfill (though more on-site recycling is being done).
Less disruption to your neighbors! Rather than having them suffer through the noise and disruption of your one-year building process, they need only suffer through demolition and foundation work. And then, the completed modules arrives to be set in place over a couple of days.
More quality control. As you can imagine, it’s easier to supervise a plumber working on many houses in one factory than it is a plumber working on site-built houses all over the Southland.

And modular or prefabricated houses need not be boring, off-the-shelf boxes. Nearly all the homes in Koones’ book were custom-designed by architects. All that being said, there must be some downside to prefab houses. There’s a downside to everything, right?

So what’s the problem with this method of building?

7 Comments on A prefab addition? Why not?

  1. Kathy Price-Robinson

    I’m with Sheila on this one. She is intelligent, articulate and highly educated in housing matters, especially green building. I look forward to each of her comments as I learn something every time. I’m hoping she’ll start her own blog so I can run excerpts on this one!

  2. sheila

    gee, carl, thanks for the shout-out, but your strange ad hominem attack is way off-base. you see, unlike your attempt at, ahem, “humor,” (yuk yuk) i thought i would reply to the questions she posed:
    “All that being said, there must be some downside to prefab houses. There’s a downside to everything, right?
    So what’s the problem with this method of building?”
    i have researched hundreds of prefabs extensively over nearly 5 years because i really, really, really wanted to put one up on my desert property. those are the things “i found tricky” about pre-fabs and which prevent me from doing so and i thought i’d share them with others in my situation.
    why does that offend you? did i lie about something or suggest any self-interested alternative for readers? i’m not even tangentially in this industry — just someone who has been working hard on figuring out a number of options for myself and this happens to be one i looked into a LOT.
    if she asked what was great about pre-fabs, i would have had a fairly detailed comment, as well. would you?

  3. Carl Heldmann

    So what’s the problem with this method of building?
    The problem is that people still call them “prefabs”.
    P.S. I think Sheila has an “axe to grind”

  4. sheila

    i’m a fan of prefab in concept, but have found a few things tricky:
    1. some designers like Marmol Radziner and Living Homes are such complete control freaks that you aren’t even allowed to choose your own appliances, fittings and fixtures (or use the ones you already own), because they feel proprietary about YOUR house because their name is on it. ugh. you lose a lot of personal style AND a lot of “green” value if you have to toss everything you own and buy everything new from them…
    2. many of the designs i’ve seen require large cranes, large flatbed trucks and big staging areas which makes them impractical for most sites.
    3. many of the factories are located far away (like the rocio romeros, which are my favorites are in missouri or something), and you have to pay per mile, so that really adds up across the entire country.
    4. many building inspectors are not interested in hearing about how wonderful it is, and they will require you to prove every material, process and engineering scenario is up to code. a house that would take “only 5 weeks to build” as some of these claim, still has to have the same inspections, which turn it into 5 months anyhow…
    5. and frankly, they really rarely are cheaper than a house you work hard on and use good fiscal sense in building/remodeling. easier, perhaps, but not cheaper. i thought one of the main attractions was economies of scale, but they don’t seem to translate…
    i think it has a lot of potential but still needs to get a lot easier and more affordable before prefabs are a practical solution for most of us…

  5. Grant Smereczynsky

    ”More and more, people are discovering Modular Homes virtues and the ‘tacky and cheap’ stigma is lessening,” she says.. Right now, prefab houses are the best-kept secret in America.” In each case, homeowners that ”really investigated their options and put a great deal of thought into them will see all the benefits that Modular Homes bring to the table.
    Great Examples are Displayed at Building Systems Network LLC http://WWW.BUILDINGSYSTEMSNETWORK.COM . in Atlanta GA.
    BSN Customers can view a number of design options that include such luxury features as chimney-stone fireplace/stoves in kitchens and Venetian spas in bathrooms, all the way up to a bigger, completely customized high-end home.”
    No matter how simple or complex the final product customers who take out construction loans benefit from the compressed timeframe. Says Grant Smereczynsky, Builder and Ceo Of Building Systems Network LLC.
    Building Systems Network is a three time National Association of Home Builders Circle of Excellence award winner.
    BSN states that Modular Homes are completed in 90 days, as compared to some construction that could take up to a year’ Right there, that could mean a savings of thousands of dollars.”
    Add that to the flexibility of design and the increased savings in energy, ”Anyone who does the research goes modular.

  6. Joshua Lurie

    There are several downsides. Certainly one of the foremost is that these homes are not and can never be site-specific; one of the primary movers behind the Arts & Crafts movement was context, the context of the house within its environment, not just the natural but the surrounding built environment, and while there are certainly many upsides to high-quality prebuilt homes, this is the big downside.
    Another is materials. Even the breezehouse and others at the very highest end tend to use materials that are a step down from what can be used by a good custom housebuilder, but of course these materials cost a lot of money … And the homeowner loses control over many details, because even as prefab floorplans may be somewhat flexible, they cannot by their very nature allow the level of control over detail that a custom homebuilder can offer.
    Intellectual property ownership is another. You can draw a plan based on your custom built home, adapt and expand on it, as long as it’s not a direct copy of the architect’s (possibly copyrighted) plans; but the licenses that many prefab plans are based on don’t allow even derivative work without additional licensing fees, and that is a bit scary.
    These are pretty straightforward, though, and I think that prefab designers/builders will continue to get better about design options and materials.

  7. A reader

    That explains it! You grew up in a “construction family”! I have often wondered why you seemed to side with contractors, while calling homeowners “difficult” (8/24/07) when they want things done correctly. It’s frustrating to read time and again about how unclear and unreasonable homeowners are. Please try to see things from the homeowner’s view in a blog that is read by homeowners, at least as much as if not more than, contractors.