Get Smart

Prefab housing has a long history in America, beginning in 1908 when Sears introduced its mail-order kit homes in its catalog. Since then economic forces, social and aesthetic currents, and the environmental movement have exerted various influences on the form, giving rise to a series of incarnations and mutations—from mobile homes like the Airstream and its less glamorous trailer-module cousins to the guerrilla chic of shipping-container architecture and Dwell’s prefab home competition. The latest project from Ikea—purveyor of all things affordable and modern—is one of a number of signs that after a long decline since its heyday in the early seventies, the prefab home may be making a comeback.

Unlike many prefab homes and most Ikea products, these—called BoKlok, Swedish for “live smart”—aren’t sold as do-it-yourself kits. To keep costs down Ikea partners with developers and purchases land to build the projects on, then sells or rents the units, marketing them through its local stores. The retailer has been partnering with global construction group Skanska since the mid-1990s to build prefab developments in Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark; now they’re preparing to launch the homes in the United Kingdom.

As in many countries around the world, household incomes in Britain are lagging behind rising prices for housing and land. Ikea saw a target consumer behind this trend: first-time buyers who have been priced out of the housing market but aren’t poor enough to qualify for government housing. “We scrutinize every part of the process—beginning with product development, where we choose inexpensive and long-lasting materials and solutions that fit our production,” says Ewa Magnusson, a BoKlok representative in Sweden. “By building the houses in modules in a dry and clean indoor environment and using skilled workers who keep doing the same tasks over and over again, we keep quality issues to a minimum and have an efficient production where we can take advantage of economies of scale.”

But the units aren’t just cheap—the promotional materials boast “space-saving, functional homes” with “a flexible open-plan layout, high ceilings, large windows,” and a “light, airy, and contemporary feel.” The courtyards feature landscaped gardens, each with a Swedish apple tree—all things Swedish being a hallmark of the Ikea brand.

These details plus mad housing-bubble prices may make desperate American renters wonder when BoKlok will arrive on our shores, but the outlook is dim for now. “As a low-price concept, we depend on big volumes,” Magnusson explains. “For now we are focusing on getting bigger volumes in our existing markets and in the United Kingdom, and have no plans for expanding to new markets.” However, she adds, “This is how it looks today, but it can change quickly.” With at least as many Americans as Brits currently priced out of the housing market—and with enthusiasm for prefab modern on the rise—it’s a good bet that consumers here will be ready whenever Ikea is.

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