Prefabricated Buildings
May 26, 2013 9:39 PM   Subscribe

Jens Risom talks about his family's prefabricated beach house.via posted by the man of twists and turns (17 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
The Risom house is GORGEOUS. We've got some pre-fab stuff around the SLC area and some of it is pretty nice, but nowhere near as slick as that. I wish it didn't have such a bad reputation (i.e. "cheap", "cookie-cutter") because there's a lot to be said for QA benefits of established production lines.

Then again I'd totally live in a house made of LEGO if given the opportunity so maybe I'm a little biased.
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:18 PM on May 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

posted by vrakatar at 10:53 PM on May 26, 2013

When we thought we were going to build a house, I looked a LOT at modern prefab, I knew instantly that the "short on the fab" place was the Romero product.

What I discovered was that the "cool" prefab stuff was at least as expensive as stick-built, in nearly every case. It seems to be a chicken/egg thing, where without volume it can't be less expensive, and without customers it can't be made in volume.
posted by maxwelton at 11:01 PM on May 26, 2013

(I used to browse fab prefab to keep up with what was happening...and I see that hasn't been updated in six years.)
posted by maxwelton at 11:04 PM on May 26, 2013

I had the great good fortune to spend almost 10 years in a Lustron home. This post-WW2 home was born of the huge demand for houses being stifled by a shortage of lumber. However, as great as the house was, the company manufacured a mere 2,498 of them before collapsing into bankruptcy.

This great little house I lived in still stands in the Westmorland neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin.
posted by lometogo at 12:56 AM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Topsider Homes is still going strong in North Carolina.
posted by Cranberry at 1:05 AM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Isn't it so nice to fetishize postwar GI Bill nostalgia!
posted by at the crossroads at 1:17 AM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

It seems to be a chicken/egg thing, where without volume it can't be less expensive, and without customers it can't be made in volume.

I don't know about that. There would seem to be an adequate number of customers for factory-built, "mobile" homes. I guess that people who live in a pre-fabricated homes just prefer to keep the wheels on.
posted by three blind mice at 1:55 AM on May 27, 2013

I'll be thrilled when the wattle and daub fetish finally catches on.
posted by at the crossroads at 3:43 AM on May 27, 2013

The Jens Risom piece was beautiful, thank you for bringing it to my attention.
posted by thinkpiece at 4:34 AM on May 27, 2013

I'm in favour of anything that encourages people to move away from McMansions.
posted by arcticseal at 5:22 AM on May 27, 2013

I toyed with the idea of a pre-fab house when my wife and I were looking for a new house a few years ago, but like maxwelton, couldn't find anything remotely close to our price range. Here's an example price list for BluHomes. They're essentially double the price of purchasing a comparably sized existing house in the Midwest, and the same seemed (roughly) true of a number of different manufacturers who build fairly nice/high quality houses. One of the houses we did look at wasn't a pre-fab, per-se but it was built with all steel-construction (roughly similar to the one mentioned in the NYT piece). I had great cell phone reception outside the house, zero inside (steel beams, steel roof, steel panels in the walls - although they had a stucco-like exterior). In that respect it was fairly similar to our old house which had plaster walls supported by metal lathes (built in the late 40s) - the network of lathes acted like a giant Faraday cage blocking all signals in the house.

The lamidesign blog has a great series on how houses are constructed in Sweden (and a fairly popular approach in northern Europe in general). Similar to pre-fab in the US, but with some interesting twists because they've apparently got a much a different approach to inspections/permitting that allows standard sections of the house to be built and then plugged together - which isn't always possible in the US (where the inspector will need to actually see the wiring, plumbing, etc.).

I'd be happy with little baby-steps towards pre-fab, like a rise in the use of SIPs - which make for a highly-insulated, relatively air tight house, that is framed ridiculously quickly. It's a small step towards constructing the majority of a house in a controlled environment (with, hopefully, higher quality control).
posted by combinatorial explosion at 5:37 AM on May 27, 2013

~In the late 1960s, designer Jens Risom sought an affordable vacation home for his family on Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island.

~The simple A-frame structure was built by a three-person team from a Massachusetts prefab home company, and according to a 2010 article in House and Garden, cost only $20,700 ($145,000 in 2011 money).

It's nice to see the term "affordable" used in a more reasonable fashion. Too often, one reads articles about someone building an "affordable" structure, only to see that the definition of "affordable" has been stretched to mean "just under a quarter-million dollars". Of course, the numbers probably only speak to the cost of the structure, and doesn't include the land it's on.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:59 AM on May 27, 2013

I'm part of a group of people who created a cohousing community and steered it through design and construction between 2001 and 2003. We originally were going to do stick-built, but we found that modular construction was far more economical. We had the units built in a factory in Ontario and shipped to the site to be assembled. For lots of reasons, the construction quality of the modules was higher than if we had gone with stick built, and we saved on the order of $50000 per unit (there were 37 units in 10 buildings, with around a 10 million dollar overall project budget). The basements were done with precast concrete panels with insulation already embedded in it, the buildings were put on top and fastened together. They came with kitchen cabinetry and bathrooms, and some flooring (carpets, tile) already installed.

We've been here ten years now, and we've been very happy with the construction. One of the great things about modular is that the individual modules have walls, floors and ceilings, which means when they're assembled there are essentially two layers of structure between floors and laterally between modules. So it's super quiet, pretty energy-efficient (though not as much as I expected), and everything is extremely solid, tight and square (I know this seems like a funny observation, but if you look at traditional stick-built, this is not always the case).

After we moved in, we had our common house and garages stick-built (no economies of scale to advantage modular), and we later built a workshop using SIPs. So I've seen the construction process of three different building technologies close up, and I think modular wins. Everything takes place inside, in a factory, not exposed to the elements and done in a very quality-controllable way. There were some compromises in design, mainly to fit allowable dimensions for transporting the modules over the roads, but within those constraints we had absolute freedom and a fair amount of customizability, and we're pretty happy with the aesthetics of the whole deal. Our houses are warm, attractive, light-filled, slightly quirky places. In contrast, with stick-built we had all kinds of trouble with contractors, who were unwilling to go outside their comfort zone (2 by 6s!? No way, we don't know how to frame with 2 by 6s! What do you mean, "ethernet cables"?), and all kinds of quality issues (mistakes, corner-cutting, weird improvisations, poor quality materials).

We may have lucked out by building in Canada at a time when the exchange rate was extremely favorable (and of course by building 37 units), and we paid a lot of attention to controlling costs. But I feel like we got a good deal moneywise and qualitywise without having to compromise (much) on design.
posted by rodii at 9:50 AM on May 27, 2013 [8 favorites]

Oh, as to this: Similar to pre-fab in the US, but with some interesting twists because they've apparently got a much a different approach to inspections/permitting that allows standard sections of the house to be built and then plugged together - which isn't always possible in the US (where the inspector will need to actually see the wiring, plumbing, etc.).

The hardest thing was convincing bureaucrats and especially banks that we weren't doing some crazy hippie shit. Essentially we had to work with inspectors to pre-qualify our designs and certify that they would work. This was very hard to do with the local government agencies, so we went to the state and worked with them. They were surprisingly accepting of innovation and didn't have the NIMBY concerns that the locals did, and once they approved the place, the locals had no choice but to comply. The locals still tried to screw us where they could--on grading, utilities, the site plan, curb cuts, and a million other things. They even insisted on a mailing address format that was different from the post office's, which has caused untold amounts of annoyance over the years. It took a lot of perseverance and negotiating. But the biggest thing, getting the actual approval and building inspection, turned out to be pretty easy.
posted by rodii at 9:58 AM on May 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

This looks like it here. (Google Maps link)
posted by planetkyoto at 5:46 PM on May 27, 2013

How the Trailer Park Could Save Us All - "A healthy, inexpensive, environmentally friendly solution for housing millions of retiring baby boomers is staring us in the face. We just know it by a dirty name."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:37 PM on May 27, 2013

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