The current fascination with Pre-Fab homes as promoted by Dwell and other magazines has roots in a genuine concern, that is, to provide a form of housing that is inexpensive and quick to install. The promise has been that, if done properly, Pre-Fab might provide much needed housing for low-income families and the homeless. However, what has happened instead is the emergence of Pre-Fab as commodity, seen online on a variety of websites promoting specific models, but understood most clearly with a quick browsing of the www.fabprefab.com website. It is here where the most crucial of activities related to the production of prefabricated homes takes place: marketing.
Gone is any concern for cost (I could not find anything that could be built for less than $200 per square-foot); gone too is any hope that these could be viable alternatives for affordable housing. What remains is the Pre-Fab as a consumer product, like a car or a toaster oven. More often than not, Pre-Fabs are designed to appeal to the environmentalist in all of us, sporting sustainable features that distract us from the fact that we might was well be shopping for an appliance -- and in the end even these accessories provide more for us as symbols validating our status as earth-friendly consumers than they do as functional elements.
So, without cost or status or even sustainability to justify our acquisition of the Pre-Fab, what are we left with? Convenience. That’s really what it comes down to. I’m guessing that (if you leave out the permit process and the construction of the foundation), these puppies can be bolted into place over a weekend. So Pre-Fab, which came out of a desire to build a home quickly and predictably, has been burdened with a whole host of semes, memes, and other themes that disguise the true motivation for wanting one of these things, which, it turns out, is sheer laziness.
Let this then be a call for Slow Architecture.
A good home takes time to build. The selection of site is critical, as is the placement of a house on that site; the specificity of a site demands a specific response. Every decision made during construction is crucial, and adapting to the ever-evolving conditions requires constant attention. The amazing part to me is that building this way also saves money. Any advantage gained by building a Pre-Fab in volume get lost in other ways - shipping perhaps, profit margins definitely. And when you’re done with your project, when you’ve handed over the wad of cash to the Pre-Fabricator and enter your new dwelling, you’re entering a house that is too small, too expensive for its size, and neither reflects you nor its site.
There’s an old saying in construction: “Price, Speed, Quality: pick any two.” I say pick price but pick quality; and leave the speed to the Autobahn.