factory-built houses are the new darlings of the media and the architectural community, but can prefab really bring high design to mainstream housing? leaders in architectural practice and theory speak out.

Martin Moeller
Senior vice president for special projects
National Building Museum
Washington, D.C

“Sustainability issues are causing many architects to re-examine fundamental assumptions about how we build, and prefab does offer the potential for bringing ‘high design' to a greater number of people. I think we'll find, however, that it is still just a drop in the bucket of the housing market. The vast majority of people still seem to want detached housing that is increasingly large and fulfills certain images about how to live comfortably. Many people will continue to have negative associations with prefab housing, even if that prefabrication is not immediately evident in the finished house.”

Randy Brown, AIA
Randy Brown Architects
Omaha, Neb.

“It beats the hell out of tract housing. In colder climates, it's an opportunity to build indoors. There are efficiencies that could translate into more architecture for less money, and it could compete with tract housing as a much higher-quality product.”

Peter Bohlin, FAIA
Bohlin Cywinski Jackson
Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

“It's inevitable. The future holds a good deal of factory-built housing of one sort or another. I'd want to see prefab housing that is well-conceived and well-detailed, and that can take many forms, from trailers to prefab parts that are assembled on site. Prefabrication is a way for architects to reach a much larger audience and to serve society well.”

Hugh Jacobsen, FAIA
Hugh Newell Jacobsen, Architect
Washington, D.C.

“The front line of architecture has always been reasonable and low-cost housing. There's no question prefab is the right way to go, and we've never done it. The problem is that the manufacturer, let alone the designer, rarely takes into consideration proportion and scale. The house is designed to accommodate the machine and budget costs. I am suspect.”

Russell Versaci, AIA
Versaci Neumann & Partners
Washington, D.C.

“I'm convinced that creating plan books for houses that are shop-built as a kit of parts is a very good way to produce traditional architecture. It's not the highest-quality way to build, but ‘good' has to become acceptable so more people can fulfill their dream of a well-designed traditional home. The housing industry builds 4,000 houses a day. There's no way architects can service that number of people without finding better means to deliver what we do.”

Adele Chang, AIA
Lim Chang Rohling & Associates
Pasadena, Calif.

“Prefabrication is one solution among many to the housing crisis. I don't think we have the will to do high-density prefab housing in the U.S. The American dream of a little plot of land is still strong. But it's time for prefab's stigma to be broken. There's a lot of design opportunity there.”

Sarah Susanka, AIA
Susanka Studios
Raleigh, N.C.

“It's an idea whose time has come. Today's technologies allow people to actually experience what good design can be, so there's finally a large enough audience that wants to buy it. People are willing to spend a little more per square foot for a well-designed house. They want it in a timely manner and don't want to have to reinvent the wheel. However, the pressure to make things cheaply is unbelievable. Architects have a role to play in making sure prefab doesn't go to the lowest common denominator again.”

Peggy Deamer
Assistant dean at Yale School of Architecture and author of The Millennium House
New Haven, Conn.

“The notion of creating a sophisticated prefab house as the perfect country dwelling for middle-class intellectuals is interesting, but it's too narrow a market. The way it's being promoted now—with the assumption that you can afford a gorgeous piece of property, and then you're going to put a prefab unit on it—creates a mixed picture of that economic bracket. I think we need to pick up on this but deploy it in a different way. Prefab needs to expand into areas where it can fill a functional niche and doesn't rely so much on its aesthetic appeal. England has some remarkable prefab housing projects that work within a tight economic bracket and look good, but have a conservative aesthetic. Ikea in Sweden is marketing a prefab housing complex called BoKlok, which aims at a market I think is important for the U.S.—newlyweds, recently divorced, mixed and transitional families, single parents—people who can only afford a communal situation. I think that's pretty smart.”

Allison Ewing, AIA
William McDonough + Partners
Charlottesville, Va.

“Modularization can tip the scale toward mass-producing building materials that can be disassembled and turned into something else. If you start to do something at a certain volume, the potential for controlling the process is increased, whether it's construction waste management, getting the HFCs out of the Styrofoam, or finding sources for sustainably harvested woods.”

James Cutler, FAIA
Cutler Anderson Architects
Bainbridge Island, Wash.

“High design is not as important to me as the question of whether we can achieve a benign relationship to the landscape and a clear expression of materials through prefab housing. We've embarked on a journey with Lindal Cedar Homes' house kits. Our best work being a 10, we're getting about a seven on the use of materials and the fit with the land. Most buildings out there rank two or three, so there's some level of success. But the jury is still out.”

Larry Scarpa, AIA
Pugh + Scarpa Architecture
Santa Monica, Calif.

“There is nothing more cost-effective than local/regional technologies and local labor. Despite the renewed interest in prefab, it's still very difficult to make it affordable. Prefab homes work because they have a system, a plan, and a dimension. But I don't think there's a homeowner who doesn't want to have a say in what his house looks like.”

Kevin Culhan, AIA
Vice president of architecture
Donald A. Gardner Architects
Greenville, S.C.

“We've seen an increased interest in panelized construction but are not aware of a renewed interest in prefab housing. High design will always require a level of craftsmanship and uniqueness that a standardized system will not be able to offer, although aspects of prefabrication will surely filter into mainstream housing. You can purchase the same automobile model as your neighbor's but get something more customized to your taste. The same level of fit and finish will be required for prefab to be accepted in the marketplace.”

Allison Arieff
Editor of dwell magazine and author of Prefab
San Francisco

“There's a much stronger national consciousness of design now, helped along by Ikea and Target; it's no longer an elitist movement. I'm seeing people who are frustrated by the experience of buying a home, and architects who are motivated to make a system that works for those buyers. Houses with enough options for personalization avoid the stigma of being bland. You see this business model in BMW's Mini Cooper, where people are buying into a brand but taking ownership of that brand by being able to make a different kind of roof. I'm also seeing a savvier group of architects who are taking a holistic approach to business, making the connection with financing and developers.”

Dan Rockhill
Professor of Architecture
University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kan.

“Yes! I do think it's a way to bring design to the broader public that cannot afford an architect. Increasingly, the entry-level home buyer is hip, went to college, likes the urban life, and has a clear disdain for suburbia. The best analogy to prefab houses is the Mini Cooper—mass produced but with enough options to let the owners feel they have a custom automobile. This will be the appeal of prefab, a little something for everyone at an affordable price.”

Witold Rybczynski, Honorary FAIA
Meyerson professor of urbanism
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

“Any prefabricated system that limits the appearance of a house will fail right away. A lot of the architecturally motivated houses are very different looking, and the market for them could fit on the head of a pin. People interested in prefab should look at panelized building technology as it currently exists. Unlike sectional homes, which have to be a box, these prefab walls can take on any shape you want. They're successful precisely because they don't dictate the appearance of the house.”