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.


4 thoughts on “Give Up On Prefab?

  1. And don’t forget Moshe Safdie’s Habitat at Expo 67, not far from Bucky’s iconic sphere.

    As you know, I am a huge fan of your company’s work – you build beautifully, creatively, and thoughtfully, with the finest research available. You’re the ‘It’ company (you do know that, don’t you?)

    But this ‘argument’ feels like an exercise in semantics, like a city constantly describing its efforts/projects as ‘world class.’ When you’re really world class – and have the confidence and skills to be so – don’t the labels fall off the table? Don’t they, in fact, become useless stumbling blocks? To paraphrase David Suzuki: We’re in a car hurtling towards a brick wall and we’re arguing about who’s going to sit where.

    If Bensonwood still feels the need to argue semantics (with their future clients, I’m assuming?) how does that bode for the rest of us lesser mortals? We need to be able to look to you to leverage what you know and have learned, to replicate your best practices without the steep learning curve. We need a quicker transfer of knowledge to emerging young builders and their design teams. Could it be that Bensonwood/Unity has as much a role to play as a training company and business incubator as it does as a home builder?

    So isn’t it, more or less, as simple as continuing to take what has worked and shelving that which hasn’t, at least until it becomes relevant or practical? Otherwise, how is it possible to move ahead and not be constantly caught up in the heaps of anxiety-inducing hooey that does nothing to address the real underlying problem: How are we to shelter and comfort one other without smashing into that wall?

    With kindness, as always.


    ps. I want to talk to you about lecture possibilities up my way.

    1. Well, you sure are a sweet critic, so I’ll try to be sweet in return, being a fan of you. As my dad often said when launching into an argument, “Of course you could be right, but…”

      Words always matter, but sometimes, as you are suggesting, it’s just academic philosophical nuance. On the other hand, sometimes the “thing” in question carries existential baggage that has been weighted down over time with too much evidence to allow for an alternate meaning. Also, sometimes it’s just not that “thing” and the distinction is important. When I found that a friend was cutting and chopping pine for his woodstove, thinking it was a hardwood, it was important to point out the mis-identification. And if I tried to say there’s not much distinction between an Episcopal and a Catholic (which I have), I’d be quickly corrected by one or the other (which has also happened). This off-site fabrication discussion has elements of both being a different thing and a different set of principles.

      When we started Timberframing, the method was known to the public–if they knew anything at all–as post and beam. But to us, that was a critical consumer misunderstanding of the product value we were offering. . Taken from the historical precedent, we saw timberframing (then two words) as essentially a heavy timber joinery craft, while post and beam was just wooden column and beam construction and could be done crudely and with metal plates and bolts and still meet the definition. So the distinction was important. Timberframing is structural finish work, or “livable furniture,” while post and beam replaces the craft challenges with simple interfaces and steel engineering solutions. The difference is not semantics only, both for practitioners and for the public. We spent years correcting the confusion for the benefit of a now-thriving timberframe industry, and there are now magazines, many books (including 3 of mine), and a trade association, all dedicated to educating and marketing about timber frames, not post and beam.

      Off-site building is similar, but the word definitions have been more created by industry practice than by long historical precedent. “Prefab” has been adopted as the underpinnings of modernism, which is unfortunate, but is also a well established.(The cover of December’s Dwell Magazine highlights two articles: “Prefab Now” and “Is Prefab Right for You?”) Modular has several problems. One is that it’s volumetric only; the other is that it’s reputation the stigma of being cheap and low-performing.

      The promise of off-site building must be in the elimination of waste and the assurance of quality, not style and not boxes. We need to do it much better and I’m convinced we need a name for that practice.

  2. Perhaps Knapp should have disclosed that his prefab house at MOMA was the one captured on film being smashed into a dumpster by a guy with a bucket loader (see here for the image and my take on Architects and “prefab”) How Architure Failed PreFab

    This was art imitating life as the Austin Lounge Lizards once sang:

    A Truckload of Art
    From New York City
    Came rollin down the road
    Yeah the driver was singing
    And the sunset was pretty
    But the truck turned over
    And she rolled off the road
    Yeah a Truckload of Art
    is burning near the highway
    Precious objects are scattered
    All over the ground
    And it’s a terrible sight
    If a person were to see it
    But there weren’t nobody around

    So perhaps this call for an end to “PreFab” is really self reflection more than anything.

    The cultures that have the most successful “industrialized” construction companies are not English speaking countries.

    There are well developed vocabularies in these countries. We English speakers should take note since we drove prefab into the wall in the first place and now we can’t stop talking about whether prefab is alive or dead, and what to call it if it is not dead?

    The bigger issue however is that there is a toxic relationship between architects and the industries that actually produce housing.

    Architects are taught that to practice architecture one must have a site, and a client, for whom they develop a program. However, most “prefabricated” buildings start their lives as images in catalogs – just like the Sears houses, and all of the companies you listed above.

    Now of course these buildings tend to be very well designed, and even drawn by architects – but they are also intended to be serially produced.

    The profession of architecture does not celebrate this.

    It celebrates a system where they make drawings for clients and have thers build them while they supervise and are paid as a percent of the cost of the construction. This in turn makes building inefficient. Prefabrication of architecture has the effect of turning housing into a product, and buyers into customers rather than clients, and this is horrible if you make a living providing a service of drawing things for others to build.

    But don’t take my word for it. Ask the house manufacturers in countries with high rates of high quality prefabricated house manufacturing (eg. Sweden or Germany) if they are supported by the architectural bodies in their countries – the answer is an emphatic “no”.

    In Sweden, up to 90% of the single family homes are what Tedd is calling “montage” built (and what the Swedes actually call “montagehus” – but if you were to ask Swedish house factories if they are supported by Swedish architects the answer would be Nej!

    Swedish architects will tell you that Swedish house factories make houses that are tasteless and bad imitations of the houses that they design, this is the opposite of what you would expect if what Architects wanted was high quality house building industry using high levels of industrial process and prefabrication (which as a percent of the total housing in Sweden is higher than anywhere in the world).

    It isn’t that architects fail at PreFab it is that succeeding at Prefabricated housing is a sure fire way to be ignored and then forgotten as an architect.

    Ask any architect what they think of the work of Lennart Bergvall … and the blank stare you get will be all the evidence you need that no one in architecture really cares about prefabrication in housing.

  3. All I know – and I feel less right about anything the more time I spend on this earth – is that if I lived in one of your homes, you could call it a ‘spoon’ or a ‘cat’ or a ‘poem’ and it wouldn’t change a single thing about it for me. Either beauty, durability and functionality exist or they do not.

    Others see what they want to see and, from my experience, it’s pretty exhausting to convince them otherwise. Much more nourishing to leverage the converted and lead by example until the tipping point arrives.

    Thank you for the fascinating conversation.

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