With a few exceptions, most prefab architects depend on outside factories to build their projects. Maintaining these factory relationships is a major key to the future of prefab. Because of the slowdown, the factories are squeezed financially, and many of the ones that are still around worry about taking a risk on a new prefab project. “We hope to continue building the houses, but we need to make sure we can make a profit,” says Kendra Cox, production manager at Blazer Industries in Aumsville, Ore. Cox works with Kaufmann and Seattle-based Stillwater Dwellings, among others, and emphasizes that she can offer a better price when the designer provides more repetition from house to house.
Repetition has been a troublesome point for modern prefabbers, owing to the desires of the marketplace. “I’ve always done custom, because nobody wants the same house,” Siegal says. The consensus among experienced modern prefab designers seems to be that a typical client wants more customization than they initially had expected—which, of course, drives up a home’s price. Prefab custom homes do offer the significant advantage of a fixed price up front. “The fixed price is a big, big factor,” says Steve Glenn, CEO of Santa Monica, Calif.–based LivingHomes.
Conversely, quite a few boutique modern prefab companies (such as Marmol Radziner, FlatPak, and Method Homes) have introduced somewhat lower-priced, customizable lines that feature more of the repetition Cox is talking about. They’ve recognized that many admirers of prefab haven’t been able to afford it, and are betting on an eventual thawing of the currently frosty lending environment. Chris Krager, AIA, a designer/builder in Austin, Texas, has consciously kept his prefab line, ma modular, priced from $135 to $200 per square foot (read "profiles in prefab: krdb"). “The biggest upside of prefab is tapping into a market that wasn’t tapped into before,” he says. To do so, he’s limited customization options and simplified the ma modular materials palette and detailing.
In the view of some industry insiders, multifamily housing offers the best opportunities for architect-led prefab. “Multifamily work is definitely the future of prefab,” says Kaufmann, whose design for an eight-unit, solar-powered townhome project in Denver was built in 2010. Long agrees. “Prefab techniques will be most influential in the multifamily sector,” he says. “Developers are not satisfied with any status quo.” The key for multifamily developers is the shorter construction time involved in prefab; the idea is that the more quickly a building goes up, the lower the carrying costs will be and the earlier the units will be ready to rent. According to John McIlwain, senior resident fellow for housing at the Urban Land Institute, “the actual construction costs may not be that different, when you add in shipping. But you save large amounts of money in the time savings.”
In 2009, Interface Studio Architects designed a 72-unit apartment building in Philadelphia that consists of 90 modules. Completed in 2010, the project caters to Temple University students and essentially functions as student housing. Principal in charge Brian Phillips, AIA, LEED AP, and developer Jonathan Weiss both say they would use modular again, even though the learning curve was steep. “We were happy with how it turned out, as a kind of example of rapid deployment and exploring the prefab process in a real way,” Phillips adds.
New York design/build firm Peter Gluck and Partners recently made headlines when it announced a seven-story multifamily prefab project in Manhattan. Principal Thomas Gluck notes that quality control is just as important a factor in prefab as time savings. “Given the same skilled crew, working in the rain and cold and hanging off scaffolding, versus being inside in their shorts with a stepladder … it’s easier to control. Quality is talked about less with prefabrication, but it is a significant advantage.” The building breaks ground in May. (Read "big apple prefab" for more on this project.) Other high-profile prefab projects on the boards include a high-rise tower designed by SHoP Architects as part of Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a five-story mixed-use building by Onion Flats in Philadelphia. Those who follow prefab will be watching closely.
Most of the single-family modern prefab companies seek sustainability for their process and products. Some, such as Blu Homes and LivingHomes, have made eco-friendliness a central tenet. The same goes for multifamily prefab. For example, ZETA Communities, a San Francisco–based prefab builder, plans to begin construction this winter on its first multifamily project, SmartSpace SoMa in San Francisco. The four-story, 23-unit building, designed by Trachtenberg Architects, is going for LEED Platinum. “Our goal from the beginning was to decrease the impact of the built environment on climate change,” says ZETA co-founder Shilpa Sankaran.
The multifamily housing sector, in general, looks to prosper as the economy picks up and the rental market grows. So it’s easy to understand the current optimism about multifamily prefab. Also, the small but lucrative niche of custom homes on remote or hard-to-access sites is becoming an attractive avenue for prefab. But what about the wider single-family market? Will architect-led prefab in North America ever become a commonly accepted path to creating a house, rather than an interesting but still fairly unusual building technique?
In these post-housing boom days, the question of market dominance is no longer the main point. For architects today, getting anything built is a triumph, no matter how it’s done. Modern prefab hasn’t become wildly popular yet. But some architects are succeeding in making it an important part of their practices. They’re using it as a way to provide customers with high-quality houses, built under controlled circumstances and to varying degrees of customization.
Established prefab companies have carefully refined their techniques and business models, and new converts have entered the scene. The truth is, modern prefab’s near and long-term future likely contains more successes and more defeats, as architects press on in their quest to create more and better housing options.