Monthly Archives: December 2013

Give Up On Prefab?

When I previously wrote about Montage Homebuilding, I explained why I am no fan of the terms prefab and modular. They represent different objectives and methods in off-site building systems, but both suffer from deep blemishes brought on by their flawed legacies. I therefore announced a new name for our unique off-site fabrication system, which has been assiduously developed to correct—rather than integrate with—the status quo.

sears kit house
A circa 1908 Sears “Modern Homes” mail-order kit house.

The promise of prefabrication has always been the simple proposition of using industrialization advances to bring consumers greater affordability simultaneous with improved quality. And why not? It has already been achieved in most every other consumer products sector from automobiles, to appliances, to furniture, and to, well, nearly everything. Modern manufacturing has indeed scaled quality and value, and buyers have come to expect it because they usually get it.

But in housing, people have instead learned to associate prefabrication and modular manufacturing methods with pigeonholing words like flimsy, toxic, cheap, temporary, limited, compromised and, oddly, to an architectural style: modernist.  Of course, the associations aren’t always deserved, but I argue that most of the off-site building industry continues to do more to reinforce the stereotypes than to overcome them, making the unfortunate perceptions too true, too often.

Naturally, I was quite interested to find a rather provocative article titled, “Why It’s Time to Give Up on Prefab.” The author, Australian architect Chris Knapp, is the director of Built-Environmental Practice, a firm that appears from its website to have a vibrant design practice, both residential and commercial. The article addresses all forms of off-site building under the single word prefabrication, as “the term identifies a range of applications for building and building components of any scale, not just housing. Yet the target of prefabrication has been focused upon housing since the very beginning.” As an architect, Knapp is particularly focused on the fractured history of prefabrication in architecture, which serves both as complement and counterpoint to my design-build perspective.

While we have simply renamed our process “montage” for clarity of intent and to avoid association, Knapp has a more radical point of view: “This is a call for the end of prefabrication.” His argument asserts that there has been too much trying and not enough succeeding, just a “countless series of disappointments.” That point is easy to make because the string of flame-outs is long and includes luminary architects like Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. Even Thomas Edison took a crack at it. From these examples and those of many others, a reasonable conclusion is that the promise of prefabrication would not be realized through a singular design or engineering concept. The future of housing was bigger than Le Corbusier’s ego, and while not perhaps as big as Fuller’s, its requirements couldn’t be reduced to his domes. Gropius could not see past Bauhaus ideals, and after attempting to pour concrete into a gigantic house-shaped form to create a monolithic structure, Edison probably realized that lightbulb-scale fail-to-success experiments were more practical.

But these aren’t good reasons to aim bullets at prefab in my opinion, and the contemporary efforts Knapp mentions don’t necessarily deserve that either. Charlie Lazor’s FlatPak house is really very innovative, and mainly suffers from being named for how it is shipped and being defined by a particular style: his. Similarly, Kieran Timberlake’s work is ambitious, creative, and courageous. They are attempting to bring the future forward and are addressing important issues with structure, form, connections, modularity, material relationships, and mechanical systems ahead of their time. If the whole looks irrelevant, as it apparently does to Knapp, in detail there is much to gain from their Loblolly and Cellophane House™ prototypes. I know. We built Loblolly. When you throw out all the conventional assumptions about building systems and design-construction process, you get to a place where there’s a virtuous cycle of innovation, feeding on itself. It wasn’t intended to be the solution, but to be a learning laboratory for finding solutions, and between Kieran Timberlake and our team, we found many. There’s a good video about the Loblolly vision and process here.

Loblolly buidling phases
The Loblolly House building process: a pod in the Bensonwood factory, pods being positioned and connected on-site, and the finished project on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

 

 

 

 

 

So the failure of prefab is not specifically in the bumpy history of flaws and failures. That’s how things get improved. Instead, it fails when architects want to shrink it down to their vision, and when an entire sector of architecture attempts to be defined by it, which is a self-limiting cage both to the modernist style itself and to the prefab moniker it wants to own. Stuck in that cage, prefab has had trouble freeing itself for broader duty in more traditional forms, as modernist proponents want the construction system to look like the buildings they love rather than an efficient, quality enhancing building process.

Though he tried, Knapp can’t quite kill the idea of prefab. As he says, “…one must reflect upon this series of utopian misfires in prefabrication’s evolution and wonder why architects have not managed to capitalize effectively upon the platform.” He seems to overlook the possibility that it isn’t about architects. It can live with them, but it is a construction method, not a design style, and therefore is not dependent on their influence, and absolutely will do better without their dominance. Inadvertently, he says so himself by pointing out that prefabrication is successful in Japan and Scandinavia. In both those cases, homebuilding companies design homes as products and sell them through catalogs and models by the thousands. And what do they get for it? Ask a Swede, in whose country they have the highest standard of housing in the world. Or inspect a Japanese house, where production efficiency is unparalleled and defects are as unacceptable as they are in their cars.

Moreover, Knapp overlooked other North American successes that also aren’t architect dominated. It is well known that Sears and Montgomery Ward sold so many houses throughout the U.S. in the first decades of the 20th century that many towns are still greatly defined by their style and influence. The ubiquity of catalog commerce, as well as the incredible convenience of rail delivery in those years, made the popular architectural styles of that period available in nearly every corner of the country.  They clearly played a role in the proliferation of the Arts and Crafts homes, most notably, but also the spare, pragmatic American Foursquare style, which gets little attention these days, but visits my dreams often, as I grew up in a wonderful Foursquare home built in 1895, before the catalog home years.

The other giant of prefab in that era was the E.F. Hodgson Company from Dover, Massachusetts. They started earlier than Sears or Montgomery Ward and also developed a more sophisticated modular system (below), which allowed them to deliver the building in more complete panels. Since many of their homes were shipped overseas, they are less well known, but it’s possible that their production was greater than Sears. My wife’s parents lived in a Hodgson home in New York and thought its quality excellent. There were other off-site homebuilding companies in that era (Aladdin Ready-Cut Houses, for instance), but these three were the largest, and accounted for perhaps 250,000 to 300,000 homes between them. Not to belabor the point, but none of these companies were founded, managed, or in any way controlled, by architects.

Hodgson Kit House
An E.F. Hodgson modular house

In the end, Knapp turns against his own theme and argues for the continuation of off-site building:

“The concept and practice of fabricating architectural elements in either part or whole under conditions separated from the contingencies of the construction site is now more important and relevant to gain efficacy as a profession today than ever before. Architects should continue to pre-build off-site, out of the weather, out of harm’s way, and in the most intelligent manner possible. This should include trusses, insulating sandwich panels, curtain walls and modular concepts, but the result needs to be considered, implemented and promoted with greater sophistication.”

That’s a very strong argument for, not against, off-site building. But depending on his meaning, I’m not sure I agree with the words I highlighted. Architects typically don’t actually build their designs, and therefore I don’t think it should be assumed that the off-site fabrication operations should be the purview of architects. For the most part, that has not worked. On the other hand, successful off-site fabrication companies usually depend on architects and professional designers to create beautiful and functional home designs.

Finally, I fully agree that the “the result needs to be considered, implemented and promoted with greater sophistication.”

So should we give up on prefab? Perhaps not. Let’s just elevate it “with greater sophistication” and call it montage.

 

Vision 2020

This year I had the honor of serving as the co-chair of the Building Design + Performance sector of the Vision 2020 project, which was conceived and organized by EcoBuilding Pulse. The idea of this important project is “to set and track critical metrics and milestones by which housing must adjust its business-as-usual paradigm” in order to meet the 2020 milestone goals of the widely accepted mandate of the 2030 Challenge.

Architecture 2030 established the 2030 Challenge to incrementally increase environmental benchmark stringency to significantly lower the carbon footprint caused by buildings, in their creation, renovation and service. It is clear that buildings are contributing greatly to climate change, but since by 2035, 75% of buildings will either be renovated or built in these intervening years, we have an opportunity to correct the problem. So it’s extremely important for our industry to do all that we can to meet the Challenge objectives.

The ten Vision 2020 chairs, along with Katie Weeks and Rick Schwolsky of HanleyWood, met by conference call on several occasions, and ultimately came together to share our respective thoughts in a day-long presentation Summit held in Washington D.C. in September. That event was followed by an essay from each chair, which additionally summarized our research and thoughts regarding our respective sectors and the 2020 milestone.

It was challenging to attempt to contribute on an equal level with my fellow chairs. For example, my co-chair was Allison Ewing of Hays+Ewing Design Studio. She’s an extremely accomplished architect, having previously worked with Renzo Piano, Cesar Pelli, and as a partner at William McDonough + Partners, before establishing her own firm with Christopher Hays. Allison is quiet and humble, but that’s easily offset by her confident, expressive, and profound body of work.  But even without that, Allison proved that some people need few words to say a lot.

The other fellow chairs were equally intimidating and inspiring, including Dennis Creech, who was the 2013 recipient of the Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Housing.  Dennis has been a sustainable building leader for 30 years and embodies so much about what is good and right in our industry. He’s never wavered in his commitment and, along with his Southface staff, has significantly moved the bar up year after year by doing the research, working in the trenches on policy and programs, and simply teaching the industry how to build better. To say he’s a hard act to follow in a speaking lineup is putting it mildly.

But follow Dennis I did, as well as all my other chairs. I spoke last and did my best to punctuate the point that our task is urgent and we should be moving toward a better sustainability standard quicker as have most of the solutions at our fingertips. As usual, the paradigm shift needed is about values and belief, and not so much about innovation and technology.

In the end, I made three contributions to the Vision 2020 program this year. The first was a webinar on the Open-Building topic with Dr. Stephen Kendall. The second was my “Tedd Talk” at the Summit and the third was an essay roughly following the theme of the talk. There are links to all of them, below. The EcoHome issue with all of the essays is now on the stands.

Following these links, I have added a link to all of the Summit essays. You could spend time in much worse ways than reading insights from some of our industry’s sustainable building luminaries talking about what we need to do to build safer, healthier, more durable and energy efficient buildings…now.

Webinar: Building Design + Performance | Open Building: A Critical Component in Sustainable, High-Performance Housing

Tedd Benson of Bensonwood Homes and Stephen Kendall, Ph.D., of Infill Systems US, explore the concept of open building and how its wide-spread adoption could change how we design homes going forward, creating more flexibility and durability.

 

VISION 2020 talk

We Must Change How We Operate

Tedd Benson lays out the options for addressing climate change. Plan A: Change the way we build and do so quickly. Plan B: There is no plan B.Read More

VISION 2020 essay (photo is scary)

It is Time to be Disruptive

Full 2020 Summit program:

Vision 2020 Introduction

Energy Efficiency + Building Science: Dennis Creech on what to do with existing homes

Building Design + Performance: Allison Ewing, AIA, on how we must adapt in order to prosper.

Indoor Environmental Quality: Marilyn Black on how we must balance energy and health.

Materials + Products: Tom Lent on how material transparency is just the beginning.

Water Efficiency: Paula Kehoe on how we must rethink water use and sources.

Economics + Financing: Robert Sahadi asks “Will green become the new granite?”

Codes, Standards + Rating Systems: Mark Frankel, AIA, LEED Fellow explains why we need outcome-based policies.

Sustainable Communities: John Norquist on the need to bring back Main Street, U.S.A.

Energy Efficiency + Building Science: Mark LaLiberte on how we must commit to education and training

Building Design + Performance: Tedd Benson asserts that all that we do must change.