The end of prefabrication

Oct 18, 2013
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Designer

At the beginning: the end

Prefabrication – there is not another word in the current lexicon of architecture that more erroneously asserts positive change. For more than a century now, this industrial strategy of production applied to building has yielded both an unending source of optimism for architecture, and equally, a countless series of disappointments. This is a call for the end of prefabrication.

As a body of professionals who collectively swarm around the discipline, architects, builders, developers, critics and politicians have used the term ‘prefabrication’ so many times and in so many ways that its clarity of purpose and focus for successful integration has been lost. Grappling with the best ways to enhance architecture through a genuinely intelligent application of prefabrication techniques, the industry has instead got better at manufacturing a culture of cool ‘prefab’ homes and a media apparatus to promote this effect, rather than doing the work needed to propel forward. Like the ‘green bling’ of sustainability (one half of the discussion topic in AR131 – Present), prefabrication has been reduced to a kneejerk response for solving various crises of housing today or to help support the commodification of Modernism.

This article does not allow for an exhaustive citation of every shortcoming in the history of prefabrication and nor does it allow for much reference to the few successes at integrating prefabrication into cultural acceptance – Japan and Scandinavia taking command in this regard. Yet all told, one must reflect upon this series of utopian misfires in prefabrication’s evolution and wonder why architects have not managed to capitalise effectively upon the platform.

Pruit-Igoe, Minoru Yamasaki. Courtesy: US Department of Housing and Urban Development
Pruit-Igoe, Minoru Yamasaki. Courtesy: US Department of Housing and Urban Development


A history of false starts

When discussing prefabrication, this specifically refers to housing built off-site, either in part or whole. By definition, the term identifies a range of applications for building and building components of any scale, not just housing. Yet the target of prefabrication has been focused upon housing since the very beginning.

Barry Bergdoll, architecture and design curator at the Museum of Modern Art, presented the exhibition Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling in 2008. The emergence of prefabrication is traced principally to nineteenth century colonisation, which when combined with the onset of the industrial revolution, yielded prefabrication processes for ‘cast iron churches … wooden houses for Australia and New Zealand, and sheet metal houses for French, German and Belgian colonies’. From this era of Taylorist production that sought to find efficiencies in the application of new materials to architectural problems (much to the consternation of French architect, Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, and English theorist, John Ruskin), came the early Modern attempt to systematise manufacturing techniques toward new approaches to building.

This new branch of industrial production appealed greatly to innovators such as US inventor, Thomas Edison, in his patent for a fully cast concrete house type, for example, and within the architectural canon, one cannot look past Le Corbusier’s Dom-Ino frame. Linked directly to the emergence of Fordist production, his spatial partí of stacked modules could be applied at the scale of the Maison Citroen or La Ville Radieuse. Was Le Corbusier’s use of the Dom-Ino mere polemic clad in the aesthetics of the machine, or did it offer something for housing that should have continued beyond the 1950s?

Similarly, Walter Gropius attempted for many years to develop a response of industrial production based on ‘artistically unified principles’ yet beyond his exhibition of houses for the Weimar Bauhaus (1923) and the Weissenhoff Estate in Stuttgart (1927), Gropius built very little despite his position of influence from the directorship of the Bauhaus and Harvard University. He did, however, spur further experimentation in the US extending from Marcel Breuer’s plywood homes to the steel Case Study houses of 1950s California.

Of the most impressive false starts in the history of prefabrication is that of R Buckminster Fuller. For a man who could lecture for eight hours straight and convincingly propose a geodesic dome to cover lower Manhattan, producing only a handful of his Dymaxion and Wichita Houses yields major disappointment. Fuller’s response to the postwar housing crises via the technology of aircraft – in terms of both material (aluminium) and process (the assembly line) – parallels Jean Prouvé’s important but limited attempts at componentised housing and foreshadows the thematic espoused by US architecture office Kieran Timberlake’s Refabricating Architecture some 50 years later.

BURST House by SYSTEMarchitects Photography: Chris Knapp
BURST House by SYSTEMarchitects Photography: Chris Knapp


Retrenchment of relevancy

Standardisation, systemisation, material honesty and technical innovation in support of social progress were central concepts of the Modern movement, yet, as noted by Mark and Peter Anderson of US-based Anderson Anderson Architecture, these ideals that flourished in other industries lost momentum during the periods of intellectual retrenchment architecture undertook in the late twentieth century. Retreating to debate compositional contradiction or post-Structuralism did not aid architecture in keeping up with societal needs for quality housing or technological engagement. Additionally, architects spent this same epoch divesting themselves of liability by relinquishing risk, relevance and profit to builders, developers and insurers. Meanwhile, the automotive and aerospace industries effectively harnessed the technical and commercial potential of the industrial era, resulting in products of wide recognition and cultural value.

It is worth highlighting key events that further complicate this history. On 16 May 1968, Taylor Woodrow’s Ronan Point Flats project in East London partially collapsed due to structural insufficiency of prefabricated wall panels from which the 22-storey tower was made. The combination of public housing and prefabrication technology together in this fire-induced, fatal disaster helped cement public opinion in Europe about prefabricated housing’s shortcomings. Coupled with the planned detonation of Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe project in 1972 and the proliferation of very cheap manufactured housing throughout the US, it is no wonder that a significant stigma follows prefabrication and Modern housing wherever they might be found. In the last decades of the twentieth century, prefab came to be equated with low-quality building that is not easily personalised, desired or culturally meaningful.

Add to this the continued preponderance of prefabricated housing types produced by architects that continue to be inaccessible to the typical consumer and one wonders how much longer the prefabrication project can survive. Enter recent examples such as Kieran Timberlake’s 2008 Cellophane House from the Home Delivery exhibition, or the 2006 Loblolly House prototype, which was built for their own use. Both houses act as vehicles for the rhetoric of change in the prefabricated industry, while doing nothing to counter the insurmountable excesses of expense. The FlatPak House by Charlie Lazor or the many Dwell-promoted houses of Modern sensibility, and equally, the formally particular and Wilkinson-winning BURST house by Systemarchitects is a further example of prefabrication’s continued inaccessibility. Quite honest to this dilemma, BURST designer Jeremy Edmiston noted that ‘[p]refab is not about controlling cost, it is about managing risk’. Indeed.

RV (Room Vehicle) Prototype, Greg Lynn FORM Sections left to right: 0° Evening Rotation, 90° Kitchen Rotation, 180° Day Rotation Courtesy: Greg Lynn FORM
RV (Room Vehicle) Prototype, Greg Lynn FORM Sections left to right: 0° Evening Rotation, 90° Kitchen Rotation, 180° Day Rotation Courtesy: Greg Lynn FORM


A bespoke end is the beginning: the true expertise of the architect

Returning to the early twentieth century, it is worth pointing out something identified by Los Angeles architect Wes Jones that Le Corbusier apparently got wrong: his attitude toward championing abstraction over difference in his response to technology and mechanisation. The legacy inherited from this choice – the reductive language of Modernist formal austerity – fits particularly well with prefabricated architecture. Economy of means, couched in the aesthetics of pragmatism produced over the past century, has alienated generations who do not care for Modernist ideals. The prefab box and its reference to mid-century Modernism, or the suggested efficiency of the shipping-container-as-domicile, limit the sensibility of those wishing for more than abstraction and reduction of geometric form. Consumers crave individuality, difference and specificity, and in the best cases, they also crave craftsmanship and attention to local, cultural conditions. Instead, the Corbusian trajectory of prefabrication has conditioned society to expect everything but.

The use of prefabrication as a platform to justify and influence the public sphere of opinion must end. It no longer helps and, in fact, for years it has done nothing but diminish the appeal and impact of architects in the housing market. The proof is in the suburbs of cities everywhere. Having now moved beyond the industrial age and fully into the era of information, the capacity to customise and to mass-produce difference as enabled by automated, digital and real-time processes has never been more viable. Yet ‘prefabrication’ is not an adequate or appropriate concept for the discipline to take forward. Similar to the innovative semantic shift that saw the sale of ‘used’ cars change to ‘pre-owned’, architecture needs to put a similar tactic in play and do away with ‘prefabrication’. It is a conceptual and semantic anachronism, and a deleterious one at that.

The concept and practice of fabricating architectural elements in either part or whole under conditions separated from the contingencies of the construction site is now more important and relevant to gain efficacy as a profession today than ever before. Architects should continue to pre-build off-site, out of the weather, out of harm’s way, and in the most intelligent manner possible. This should include trusses, insulating sandwich panels, curtain walls and modular concepts, but the result needs to be considered, implemented and promoted with greater sophistication. It is no longer enough to simply appropriate shipping containers or to feel content with a chassis-mounted project. More of the same is just more of the same. Today’s tools – both the software and the hardware – allow for the ability to conceive, develop, evaluate, coordinate, build and distribute meaningful work.

Greg Lynn’s Embryological House project (1997–2002), while unbuilt, set a proposition that is ripe for development in the post- prefabricated era: to make instances of individual housing that are never the same twice, using efficient automated processes that consume material resources from a closed-loop, cradle-to-cradle pool of ‘technical nutrients’. Such a project can embody the local, cultural specificity of a personally owned commodity, while maintaining identity in a global system of capital flows.

In addition to spatial awareness, the intelligence of the architect has always been the capacity to synthesise and integrate. Mass- production is the realm of the industrial designer and the process engineer – so let them maintain claim over that territory. The bespoke is the true specialty of the architect and the contemporary profession has more facility than ever to implement difference in the most intelligent of ways.

Conversation • 6 comments

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22 Oct 13 at 2:18 PM • Anthony Dann

Wow. What rubbish. What the author will find if he chooses to look closely enough is that the success of prefabrication is already with us. Probably has been since Corb devised that sketch.

I work in a practice that has a diverse business model including bespoke, prefabricated and design/construct housing. We work across the full spectrum, but what I am most happy doing is working with the middle market – the mass market, where few architects dare to tread.

The greatest advantage of prefab is that it’s fast. Our manufacturer can turn a build which would otherwise take a year in as little as 8-12 weeks. The convenience of this to the client is profound. Other advantages are that materials are kept away from the weather, and trades work seamlessly together without interruption. Our costs are competitive and largely better than conventional build, mostly because of the efficiencies that factory conditions allow. Our houses range from the multi-million dollar build down to the little weekender. And it would be impossible to identify that the houses have been made in a factory, such is the result of working with a great manufacturer(read builder). I myself was an industrial designer before deciding to train as an architect. Now I find both disciplines happily exercised and complimenting eachother.

We’ll continue to encourage our clients towards prefab, and use our expertise to raise the standard in this exciting field. Not that they need encouraging. The phone doesn’t stop ringing.

23 Oct 13 at 12:38 AM • Michael Parsons

Although the article and the first comment are seemingly at odds, it is evident that there is actually an overlap of ideas. The article argues that the need for architects to “continue to pre-build off-site, … in the most intelligent manner possible” is “now more important and relevant to gain efficacy as a profession today than ever before”, so I feel that the comment has missed the argument of the article. In defence of the article, it seems to be arguing for the end to the current and stereotypical resultants of prefabrication, not the process of off-site construction. The article argues that prefab, as an aesthetic as well as a political or marketing tool, is hindering growth and development in architecture.

The article demonstrates effectively, that prefab is a relatively old method of construction, which often adopts a modernist aesthetic and is therefore no longer contemporary or appropriate today. I think this validates the request of a change in both the direction of, and name for, off-site construction, especially, considering the drastic change in technology since the coining of prefabrication. This still leaves us with a problem of what the difference between “off-site construction” and prefabrication is. This is, I think, where the real issue lies, not what it is called, but the physical realisation.

The article does make a suggestion, by calling for the further exploration of projects like Greg Lynn’s Embryological House project, which demonstrates the ability to produce a unique result every time. It appears that the article is calling for both an increase is the use of current technology (industrial robots, 3D printing, laser cutting, CNC milling and parametric software) in both the fabrication as well as design of off-site construction. There is potential in this area to give the architect greater control of the building process and move away from the “one size fits all” approach to housing and to find more appropriate typologies for the so-called “post-prefabricated era”. I think there is a larger issue at the heart of the differentiation between prefab and off-site construction. Prefab is geared towards mass-production; it effectively produces a product called a ‘house’, however, architects should aspire to produce more than just a consumer product. A house should be a home, a civic building should be an icon, and architecture should inspire. The article’s call for change could remove any associations of ‘consumer product’ from prefabrication, or it could perpetuate the product driven trajectory of prefabrication under a new shiny name. So the question is how can we ensure that a semantic shift results in real change that will enable architecture to respond to the increased complexities of our contemporary world?

23 Oct 13 at 2:44 PM Adrian Bonomi Architect

There’s some interesting ideas going on here bet I agree that the thesis in the article is self contradictory.

I would argue that despite the history of pre-fabrication on construction, the true possibilities for off-site component-driven production is only just beginning to emerge. I agree that prefabrication should not lead to more blandness – and there are plenty of decorated shoe boxes out there.

We should as designers always strive to provide delightful and stimulating spaces for people to use and prefabrication should not be an excuse to put production limitations and pragmatism first.

23 Oct 13 at 5:54 PM • Christopher Välttilä

Its interesting that the author of the article mentions two exceptions where prefabrication of dwellings has been successful :Scandinavia and Japan . I would classify it as Nordic rather than Scandinavia as the Swedes,Danes & Norwegians prefer to classify themselves as Scandinavian but the Finnish are ok as Nordics . In the case of Finland and Japan the environment and cultural similarities vis a vis aesthetics and design are also interesting precursors for the success of prefabrication and in particular in the use of wood. Finland has a range of prefabricated house production and now apartment production maximizeing timber components. The development of sophisticated CAD design tools also allows for cost control and architectural license to even produce so called bespoke dwellings. The cost savings are considerable in terms of reduction of waste,labor & time . The maximisation of wood also means CO2 emissions are reduced considerably. Buyers can also participate in the design process. The design cost of the architect is integrated into the dwelling.
There is an organic and mythical relation to the forest and wood in Finland . Nearly 50 % of all new timber dwellings in Finland are prefabricated . The use of tactile natural wood internally is also preferred with panels,flooring,beams. And of course the sauna is totally wood.
The control of cost is also evident vis a vis use of steel,concrete,bricks- all CO2 heavy emitting products.
Australia has a climate convivial to the use of wood .The problem is that the structure of the construction industry and its design ethos has produced an ugly aesthetically barren residential dwelling landscape structured around old expensive modes of construction. In our business we can deliver a timber dwelling in terms of pure m2 cost under 50 % of the cost of a non timber dwelling in Australia . And that is shipped from Finland and erected in Australia. We only need to procure the roof locally. The insulation values are far superior for both cold and warm seasons. Also the wood breathes .

07 Dec 13 at 2:00 AM • Miguel

Strange… illustrative an encyclopaedic but not argumentative!
Prefabrication is not only “easy building”! It’s mostly “efficient building”. And believe me in an 8billion humans, “more with less” will be the trend!!! And despite the arguments, prefabrication is already the industrial, and the market focus when we talk about dwellings and public equipments! Today, buildings are like service platforms. The construction (10% of the value) is not considered the important part; the most important issue regarding value, is the building as a service container (90% of the embodied value). So, in my view, the market in search for the easiest and quicker, low cost, cost effective, functional, flexible, resistant, etc, etc… Resuming: prefabricated.
US and China buildings manufacturing, a sort of housing pastiche in mass production, not being architecture, can’t be forgotten as examples.
The question at my point of view, is more : will architects embrace prefabrication framing artistically building’s mass production? Or not?

21 Jan 16 at 1:38 AM • Alan

The replies are interesting but full of bias. There has always been an element of prefabrication in housing since we moved away from mud huts. Brick houses have prefabricated bricks. Timber houses usually have prefabricated sections of timber. The only reason for the ugliness of mass prefabricated houses was due to the architectural design and lack of imagination. The designs of mass housing estates have largely been dependent on the affordability of the end user. Conventional designed houses using conventual materials or even top quality materials will look ugly if there is a lack of variation and imagination. However a stand alone prefabricated house in the midst of conventional mass housing could be the best looking house in the street. The trick is to have a diversity of all types of construction and designs to create a community. After all, we are all different, with different tastes and different needs and affordability.


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