Tag Archives: PREFAB

#175: A STORY ABOUT MODULAR CONSTRUCTION

September 8, 2023

ReMo modular small house, by Poon Design

In 2016, I authored an article, The Myth of the Prefab House, debunking the media hype of pre-fabricated houses. Today, I stand corrected and updated. With advancements in technology, manufacturing, and in particular, modular construction, my story continues. Poon Design’s latest endeavor—a modular, factory-built, 400-square-foot home designed for modular manufacturer ReMo Homes—was recognized this past June at the Innovative Housing Showcase exhibition in Washington, D.C, in association with the National Association of Home Builders and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

ReMo modular small house under construction, Hawthorne, California (photo by Poon Design)

First off, modular construction means being built within a factory, not at the building’s final destination. Also, modular—as the name implies—consists of modules, a kit-o-parts of repetitive materials and details. Whether the modules are elements that comprise a house (structural frames, walls, or cabinetry) or an entire residential unit (finished apartment or hotel room), the modular strategy involves pre-built components assembled for a larger whole. Modular architecture can be a single house, or 100 modules stacked up for a five-story building. Of course there are positives and negatives.

Clayton Homes, a factory producing modular homes, Maryville, Tennessee (photo from claytonhomes.com)

Pros:
– There are lower costs due to efficiencies, such as less labor.
– Modular construction saves time, avoids weather changes, and has pre-designed, agency-approved concepts.
– Much less material waste.
– You do not need to store materials at a construction site.

Cons:
– You must transport the building from the factory to its intended property.
– There could be potential damages during travel.
– More upfront costs and some hidden costs like site prep and utilities.
– There is limited design customization to none at all (and most customers want to make changes!).

Historic photo, date unknown (photo from Prefab Museum)

Most historians credit London carpenter Henry Manning with the first example of modular housing. His 1837 prototype made its way from an England factory to Australia as a gift to his son. Soon after, a local movement launched inspired by the prototype’s ingenuity, ease of shipping, and efficiency of construction.

Crystal Palace, London, England (photo from Smithsonian Libraries)

More ambitiously, English engineer/architect Joseph Paxton displayed modular innovation with his beloved Crystal Palace. The one-million-square-foot event hall housed London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. The modular construction comprised interchangeable prefabricated steel elements 60,000 panels of glass.

Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tokyo, Japan (photo by Susann Schuster, Unsplash)

The modular strategy and bizarre expression of the 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower was both renown and infamous. For Tokyo business travelers, architect Kisho Kurokawa offered 140 “capsules”—one-person hotel rooms, stacked upon one another, like a child’s plug-n-play game.

My Micro NY, New York, New York (photo by nArchitects)

Fast forward to today, nArchitects designed a nine-level apartment building known as My Micro NY, located in New York City. The project’s name acknowledged the 55 modular micro-apartments constructed of concrete panels within a steel frame, each 300 square feet and prefabricated in Brooklyn.

Tetris Apartments, Ljubljana, Slovenia (photo from architizer.com)

This kit-o-parts approach influenced cultures as far as Slovenia. For the aptly named Tetris Apartments, OFIS Arhitekti confronted the housing shortage with their design of 650 modular apartments combined to provide a renewed sense of community, excitement and livability, not often thought of for government-driven public housing.

ReMo modular small house kit-o-part diagram, by Poon Design

To this rapidly growing industry, Poon Design contributes a small, sustainable, smart house—either a compact residence or accessory structure, often called these days an ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit)—soon to be available nationwide. In keeping with the promise of efficiencies, our design was constructed in less than a month in a factory in Southern California, then placed on a flatbed truck, and made its 2,700-mile trek successfully to D.C. for thousands of attendees to witness a potential future.

ReMo modular small house concept model, by Poon Design (photo by Poon Design)

#87: 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.

#28: 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.