To many architects and builders, prefab and modular construction remains an enigmatic technology.
Advocates say it helps reduce costs, produces less waste, results in more-consistent quality, offers precise construction, results in a stronger house, and reduces construction time. And yet the technology accounts for only a miniscule percentage of the new homes built every year.
The cause of this disconnect is unclear, though some builders say prefab does not always deliver on the promise of cost savings. Plus, the perception of some consumers and lenders is that a prefab or modular house is like a double-wide trailer.
Author Sheri Koones is on a mission to separate truth from myth and show what ideas about prefab housing are misguided. Koones, who has written about prefab in such books as Modular Mansions, Prefabulous, and Prefabulous + Sustainable, has a new book coming out in October called Prefabulous + Almost Off the Grid (Abrams Books).
The book profiles more than 30 of the most energy-efficient homes in the U.S., but what’s noteworthy about the homes is that all were built with some type of prefab construction. On top of that, the homes are stylish and architecturally appealing—ranging in style from modern to traditional, to somewhere in between.
Builder magazine recently spoke with the author about what prefab really is and how its reputation is changing.
Builder:Why did you write this book?
Sheri Koones: As I’ve been writing books on prefab construction, I’ve seen the remarkable houses that have recently been built using a variety of methods. These houses are more energy efficient, healthy, and environmentally friendly than those built in previous years. Building prefab is automatically more efficient, but coupled with the methods used by these architects, builders, homeowners, and manufacturers, these houses are particularly noteworthy.
B:Were the decisions to use prefab in each project driven by the designers and builders, or by the owners?
SK: Most of the homeowners in this book—Prefabulous + Almost Off the Grid—did their research on home construction before going to a builder. In many cases, they chose the builder because of their experience with prefab. I’m also seeing more and more architects and builders getting educated about prefab and beginning to recommend the various methods to their clients.
B:What surprised you about these homes that may also surprise builders?
SK: Many of the homeowners said they were on tight budgets and wanted to make sure the methods they used were cost-effective. The energy-saving and environmental aspects used to build these houses did not add substantially to the cost of the houses.
B:What do you think builders and consumers need to know about prefab?
SK: An important point is that prefab houses are indistinguishable from site built ones. They are generally better built, are completed faster, generally cost less (when comparing apples to apples and pears to pears), and create far less waste.
B:Are you surprised more homes aren’t built with the prefab model?
SK: I’m always surprised if homeowners decide to build on site. Prefab methods are faster, more economical, less wasteful, and stronger.
B: What do you think is the biggest obstacle to prefab being more universally accepted?
SK: Empathically education. Almost always when people learn about prefab methods, they decide to go that route. I get notes from readers every week asking how they can find builders to build the kinds of houses I have in my books. Once people learn about prefab, they rarely decide to build on site.
B:What roles do public perceptions, lenders, and appraisers have in the mainstream acceptance of prefab?
SK: I’ve written four books about prefab and have spoken at numerous professional conferences, so I’m still shocked to hear prefabs referred to as double-wides. People that perceive prefab as inferior have probably never seen one or watched one being built. If they did, they would most likely be impressed with prefab, as I am. There may be some lenders and appraisers out there that may be uneducated about prefab, but there are also lenders today that specialize in prefab loans. Most appraises today understand the advantages of prefab.
Nigel F. Maynard is a senior editor at Builder.