Bringing Back the Box

“This will change the face of architecture,” says Jennifer Siegal about the prospect of prefab homes built in computer-controlled factories. Like most people on the design side of the prefab revolution, the mobile-housing innovator and designer of the Swellhouse has a near messianic enthusiasm for the future: Imagine eco-friendly habitats delivered ready for home decorating in a matter of weeks! High-end design on a low-end budget, not just for the few but for Everyman!

The question is, even at $100 per square foot, can we afford the new Bauhaus dream? The answer is, probably not. For architects prefab has become the mantra for liberating dwellers from one-size-fits-all living by offering them the architect-mediated structures they deserve. It’s also about seizing the opportunity to actually build something interesting before they turn 50. Prefab is giving designers like Siegal and Resolution: 4 Architecture the visibility they would never get otherwise. There is also the chance they might make money by reducing the role of contractors, and in some cases even that of manufacturers.

For customers the lures are cost, cachet, and convenience—in that order. The housing bubble has pushed prices for existing homes out of sight, and an Ikea-raised generation doesn’t necessarily want to live in some soulless condo or tacky tract house. They want something personal. Prefab would seem to be great as a starter home and even better as a second one outside the city someplace—a clean, uncluttered Donald Judd-type getaway. And who really wants to deal with architects and contractors anyway when you can get all that just by picking the house?

Fair enough. But as I recently watched a friend become a prefab Mr. Blandings, I began to wonder how this experience could be a model for any future anywhere. He had a brownstone apartment; he wanted a loft. He had nineteenth century; he wanted Modernism. He had city; he wanted rural, and he had the land in upstate New York already. He thought it would be “fun” and “cheap enough to be even more fun.” He picked a whiz kid engineer-architect with international credentials and lots of cachet among those in the know. Although the house was not a kit assembly, many key components—foundation, footings, floors, ceilings, wall panels—were prefabricated and delivered to the site ready to build. Prefab can, of course, mean many different things. In this case the architect even had his own assembly team to eliminate contractors altogether. And with all the money he saved, my friend assumed there would be lots of room for the customized touches that would make this his own statement.

After nearly three years the house—a 24-by-72 foot Modernist box upon a box—was still not ready. One of the problems that afflicts prefab is the process itself. Eliminating middlemen and bringing design and fabrication in-house (or jobbing the latter out to a manufacturer) simply shifts problems that might have occurred in the normal building process. There can still be delays and cost overruns. Presumably once the assembly line is humming and the designs have been ironed out, all the problems disappear. But one reason the Modernist prefab business has not taken off is that the demand has not been big enough to generate assembly-line numbers that would truly move the process beyond prototyping—a catch-22. And once the houses get bigger than a relatively small box and have more customized features, the costs can easily approach those of standard construction. In my friend’s case the “personal touches” (roof garden, special window supports, in-floor radiant heating) were tossed overboard to lighten the cost load. As fabricating delays mounted and costs continued to rise, the pre in prefab became less and less relevant. “When you go above $200,000 and $200 a square foot [a benchmark for high-end prefab], it’s no longer fun,” he said. “It’s building a house.”

Aside from the lesson that the front end of a prototyping process is a bad place to be, my friend’s experience revealed the limits of some fundamental prefab assumptions. First and foremost is the idea that you can get an architect without paying for one. Even if you buy a house off the shelf, the architect’s fees are built in. It’s the only way for the designer to make money without working. If you decide to customize or scale up, that will inevitably entail additional costs. It turns out that hiring an architect directly to design something just for you is not an impossible luxury. Even with world-class architects, the design fees are probably the best part of the bargain. They can be as little as 15 percent of the cost of construction.

As for building, even when the design is tricky the stick-built product can be affordable. A recent Steven Holl house described in this magazine (“Site Specific,” March 2005), the Nail Collector’s House, came in only slightly higher per square foot than high-end prefab. What drove up costs was exactly what can drive them up with kit homes—delays and personal touches, from flooring and appliances to skylights, cladding, and roof decks. The other thing that can raise expenses is getting a prefab in place—on the foundation, sealed and seaworthy. Unlike tract housing, foundation and site preparation aren’t figured into the quoted costs of a prefab house. They’re wild cards. One of Siegal’s first clients found that zoning rules required him to build sidewalks and other modifications that would have cost $50,000 to $70,000. He bailed out.

A larger problem has to do with site specificity. Custom prefab looks stylish and special, but the most economical versions don’t do what any good ground-up design does: respond to place and deepen the experience of it. A generation ago Charles Moore wrote, “If architects are to continue to do useful work on this planet, then surely their proper concern must be the creation of place. …To make a place is to make a domain that helps people know where they are and by extension who they are.” Off-the-shelf Modernism can go anywhere, but does it belong there? Based on the designs I have seen, its notion of place is limited chiefly to what can be seen through a large picture window.

The Corbusian ideal of Le Modulor, and before that of the Bauhaus, was universal, not particular—embodied in designs that cast off the tyranny of history, class, family networks, and localities. It dismissed exactly the things that tend to cluster around particular places: memory, metaphor, idiosyncrasy, and the improvisations of any organism attempting to adapt to local conditions.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the prefab movement for bringing back open-floor Modernism. I love the WeeHouse by Alchemy Architects because it reminds me of a giant Philco TV set, and it really can go anywhere. Karim Rashid’s KIT 24 prototype, rolled out at Toronto’s 2006 Interior Design Show, is loaded with a Kmart full of fabricated plastic features. The best may be Viennese Gustav Peichl’s arced house design, which looks way beyond the box. Alas, Europe’s strict building codes have so far limited it to a virtual one-off. What all these have in common, however, is that they make every place the same place, a place where the house makes the site rather than vice versa.

The more serious problem with high-design prefab housing is that it is a repackaging of the American Dream—and that dream may not be environmentally affordable. Although it has a futurist appeal, prefab embodies a bourgeois aspiration no different from 1950s suburbia, of a discreet dwelling for everyone. Satisfying that primarily North American expectation over five decades has led us to the open-space crisis of sprawl. Would Pahrump, Nevada, which bills itself as one of America’s fastest-growing communities, be more tenable if the proliferating grid of mobile homes that is gobbling up the desert and using up water were replaced by WeeHouses? It is hard to see how a landscape littered with Modernist boxes—each requiring water, a sewer, and a driveway—will be part of anyone’s green revolution, even if the boxes do have eco-friendly bamboo floors. On the other hand, if prefab could lead a revitalization of urban areas (drop the box on the block), that might be another story, but what would the appeal of picture windows be there?

The limit of prefab now is the one imposed by the consumerist social model that has given it birth. On the global scale the every-man-a-Farnsworth-House-owner approach to shelter makes even less sense. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the earth’s population may grow by nearly a third over the next 50 years—several billion more of us clustered mostly in high-density concentrations. Prefabricated approaches to construction might prove crucial to meeting this challenge in a timely and rational way. But the answer surely doesn’t lie in stacking pyramids of WeeHouses. It can be found rather in something like the original world-making Bauhaus ambition, in thinking about prefab in a big way. It means imagining a future in which people won’t all be reading Dwell and waiting for their chance to live in a glass house.

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