Tag Archives: PREFAB

GROWING UP IN ARCHITECTURE

August 10, 2018

Mills High School, Millbrae, California (photo from carducciassociates.com)

A 1960s cover of Time magazine featured my high school as a building that could be assembled and disassembled with a screwdriver. Though not literally so, the architects of Mills High School made a bold assertion relating an entire school campus as a simple kit-of-parts. Before the recent marketing ploys of prefab homes, this school that I attended comprised prefabricated parts that could be put together like a child’s toy.

Though the high school was comprised of nothing more than several dull institutional buildings, I wonder if the innovative thinking in the school’s design influenced how I experienced architecture.

Eichler home, Burlingame, California (photo from freshome.com)

During these teen years, my family resided in Burlingame, a quiet suburban community a few miles south of San Francisco. Though initially appearing to be not much more than some average tract homes, Burlingame had an architectural legacy unknown to general home buyers. Our little neighborhood contained one of the largest collections of Mid-Century Modern homes by illustrious developer-builder, Joseph Eichler. Over 100 homes.

Eichler homes, Burlingame, California (photos by Anthony Poon)

The streets where I rode my bike, where I learned to drive, and where I played ball, were lined with the iconic architecture of the period. The design vocabulary of clean lines is commonplace now, but back then, it was ground breaking. Eichler explored indoor-outdoor spaces, abundance of natural light, large walls of glass, thin roof lines, open floor plans, carports, and an overall composition of efficiency and elegance.

How did growing up in two such impactful architectural environments influence my future?

East West Bank, Chinatown, San Francisco, California (photo by Anthony Poon)

Prior to living in Burlingame, the urban fabric of San Francisco was home, from the steep streets and Victorian homes of Russian Hill to the patina and history of Chinatown, from a job at a music studio in the Tenderloin of the then decaying Mission District to the deeply fogged-in hillside of South City, and from the hustle bustle glamor of Union Square to the comic book stores of North Beach. This was all an architectural sonata of intensity, risk and exploration.

Hills of San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge in background, view from Coit Tower, California (photo by Anthony Poon)

I suspect that if I attended a generic suburban high school and not a gutsy innovative architectural work, that if my teen experiences were contained in the Taco-Bell-style tract homes of California and not a community of production homes from one of history’s eminent Mid-Century Modern architects, and that if my childhood was in a city that lacked texture, adventures and delight, I would not be the architect I am today. I believe that somehow the creative and random tapestry of various conditions threaded into my head, and decades later, seeped out of my architectural hands.

MYTH OF THE PREFAB HOUSE

February 4, 2016

Prefab home, Madrid, Spain (photo by Abaton)

I am convinced that prefab homes are a myth. The success stories have been shown to be mostly fictional and braggadocio. More relevant than ever, we need well-designed, good value housing. But relevance doesn’t mean reality. According to all those glossy marketing campaigns, prefab houses were supposed to not only change the housing market, but change the world.

Different than a custom designed residence built at the construction site, a “prefab” (short for prefabricated) house is designed speculatively, built in a factory, and assembled on the property owner’s lot like an enormous toy kit-o-parts.

“Modern Home No. 115,” Sears “Kit” home, circa 1930
“Modern Home No. 115,” Sears “Kit” home, circa 1930

Though apparently popular in past years, the prefab approach is not new. Early 1900’s, retailers like Sears sold prefab homes from a catalog. After World War II, the prefab solution offered an affordable option for returning soldiers.

First problem. Prefab homes are not meant to be customized. To reflect personalities, people love to change things. Even with the prefab companies offering some architectural variations, such as a larger bedroom or different kitchen layouts, such few choices rarely suit homebuyers. And their requested customizations muck up the whole process. With homes already fabricated and pre-approved by building codes, customer changes, even the smallest ones, come at great cost, loss of efficiency, and waste of energy.

Prefab home en route (photo by Joe Sohm)
Prefab home en route (photo by Joe Sohm)

Second problem. When considering the deceptively low price for a prefab home, make sure you pad the wallet for: purchase of your land; delivery costs of bringing said house to your property; and the infrastructure required, i.e. building foundation, sewer line, driveway, landscape and site lighting.

Third problem. How great are these homes architecturally? With the limits of a factory process and dimensions of the truck delivering across interstates, the design result is not much more than a box. And a box, even a nice bunch of boxes, might not make an enjoyable home for you.

Prefab beach house, Hekerua Bay, New Zealand, (Photo by Russell Kleyn)
Prefab beach house, Hekerua Bay, New Zealand, (photo by Russell Kleyn)

Years ago at the national trade shows, I witnessed an impressive number of sales booths promoting prefab companies. I queried the salesperson, “How many prefab houses have been sold?” With all the different salespeople from various booths, the answers were consistently ambiguous. “Well . . . we have designed several, some in production, few are pre-ordered . . .”

When asked again, this time with tenacity, their responses were embarrassing, as no marketing person likes to backpedal. They admit, “Only one, maybe two have been delivered to a home buyer.” Not the 50 or 100 as their pretty pictures represent.

Each passing year, I witnessed fewer booths. The fancy magazines wrote editorials retracting their previous features on the “silver bullet success of prefab homes.”

Prefab home in Desert Hot Springs, California. Originally listed for approximately $2 million. Four years later, sold for only one-third of asking price. (photo by CAD Services and Marmol Radziner)
Prefab home in Desert Hot Springs, California. Originally listed for approximately $2 million. Four years later, sold for only one-third of asking price. (photo by CAD Services and Marmol Radziner)

The once seductive $200,000 price tag for a house has been replaced by the actual total cost of $2 to $3 million. Perhaps the prefab home would sell better to the wealthy. Such structures can have exciting possibilities as second homes, weekend beach structures, or getaway vacation retreats.

42 portable classrooms, Palm Harbor University High, Florida, 2014 (photo by Andy Jones)
42 portable classrooms, Palm Harbor University High, Florida, 2014 (photo by Andy Jones)

Homes aside, prefab buildings have purpose as temporary structures. How about those prefab classrooms in your school’s parking lot? Ironically, though these “temporary” classrooms suggested a permanent solution was on its way, these structures remain in use, 30 years and counting.

The prefab industry is a tiny niche. As a hyped marketing position, it impressively blazed through mainstream media. But as the answer to good housing: sorry.

© Poon Design Inc.