Why Prefab Failed... Again

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Michelle Kaufmann's Glidehouse.

Ivy Chuang, Knoend.
Ivy Chuang, Knoend.
It was brought to my attention just last week, that one of the most well-known players in the prefab housing industry was shuttering its doors. After five years, Michell Kaufmann Designs was closing shop. I met Michelle Kaufmann once years ago at the Commonweatlth Club in San Francisco when she had just started her business and was showcasing her first projects as a speaker. At the time, prefab architecture firms were just beginning to sprout.

The Eames House.

As a concept, prefabricated housing seems to make so much sense that it's a wonder why all houses aren't built with prefab techniques and methods. The prime example of the prefabricated house that sticks out in my mind is the Eames House (above). As part of Art & Architecture magazine's Case Study House Program, The Eames House was originally designed in 1945 and built and completed 1948-1949. The rectangular steel-framed house was originally designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen but was later significantly modified during construction by Charles and Ray Eames for whom the house was studio and home. The house utilized prefabricated industrial materials including steel, glass, asbestos, and cemesto board.

In Eames Demetrios' An Eames Primer, Ray Eames summed up their intention of utilizing manufacturing technologies: "It was the idea of using materials in a different way, materials that could be brought from a catalog. So that there was a continuation of the idea of mass production, so that people would not have to build stick by stick, but with material that comes ready-made-off-the-shelf in that sense."

The Case Study House program ended in 1965, though each of the houses built were suppose to be affordable models of duplication, in the end, no two houses were alike, and none were massively replicated.

When I saw Michelle Kaufmann speak in 2005, I thought that the market was finally ready. I thought the prefab manufacturing methods had finally reached a level of efficiency that would enable the mass customization that Ray Eames had spoke of so many years ago. With the amount of prefab firms cropping up, I was sure the time was ripe, and for all the right reasons.

So what happened?

There were quite a few reasons Michelle Kaufmann was "on the ropes" according to TreeHugger.

But here's my add-on theory...

The percentage of people that will buy land, and design and build a house themselves is very small. Most people choose to buy existing houses because the majority of people do not want to wait or deal with the complications of design and construction of a home, and in addition, they are not that creative nor do they want to be. Present somebody with a blank canvas and they're not sure where to start, but show them an empty house and they can imagine living in it. It is much easier for people to visualize space when it is already built.

I was sure that prefab was the future a few years back, but now when I ask myself the question: if I had land and money to build a house, would I really choose prefab? The answer, despite my preferences for sustainability, is probably not. And why not? Somehow I feel restricted by the pre-designed concept, I feel as if I'd be ordering to build a house from Legos. It may be that I haven't educated myself thoroughly on the possibilities of prefab, but for the time being, this is my instinctual reaction.

So, too intimidating for the uncreative, too restrictive for the creative, couple that with a crappy economy, and there goes prefab. If the time and cost savings were truly what prefab claimed it could deliver, then maybe there was a chance. As it was, without economies of scale, these savings did not manifest, and when the credit crunch hit, the financing fell through and gave a final blow.

I think there are some other companies out there still fighting the fight; maybe another comeback is due down the line.


Ivy Chuang is the founder and design director of Knoend, a San Francisco-based studio with sustainability and innovation at its core. She is a nomad, surfer, cook and occasional artist.
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