The green movement has breathed new life into many overlooked and undervalued markets in the last decade. The prefabricated housing industry is one such example of dramatically shifting consumer demand, as the ‘less is more’ mantra becomes increasingly ubiquitous.
The industry has battled against stereotypes and image barriers for decades – many Western countries, especially the United States, view manufactured homes with a kind of cultural disdain, as their homogenized look and cost-cutting shortcuts in production made them a staple of low-brow, penny-counting suburbanites.
But all of that is changing quickly. An influx of stylish, eco-minded architects and designers into the field of prefabricated homes has brought a sense of renewal and chic to the sector, opening the door for a new breed of would-be homeowners and challenging the traditional model of urban and rural development. Costs are coming down, sustainability is on the rise, and the industry may finally be coming into its golden age.
A Revitalized Industry
The prefab genre includes modular, panelized, and manufactured homes, all of which first came onto the scene most notably after WWII, as millions of young soldiers returned from the theaters to move out into the suburbs and begin building a family life. Manufactured homes offered a cheap and time-saving alternative to tract housing. The trade-off in quality and design soon led to a decline in popularity, however, and the industry leveled off.
At least two factors have reinvigorated the prefab housing industry in recent years, however. The recession of 2008 and collapse of the housing market has emboldened potential homeowners to step outside the moors of traditional tract housing, whether for cost-savings or to avoid a turbulent market. More prominently, though, the turn towards sustainability and environmental consciousness has done the most to highlight the strengths and potential of prefab.
Moving construction to an indoor factory does three things – first, it dramatically cuts costs. Standardizing and pooling construction efforts allows for the best deals in materials and labor. Second, it cuts down on material waste. In tract housing projects, up to 30 percent of stick built home material goes unused. The increased efficiency in a factory setting allows for environmentally friendly materials to be used while remaining cost effective, as precision and quantities increase. Finally, as construction is unhampered by weather or other environmental concerns, building times are much lower and delays, weather or material related, are avoided altogether.
Innovations in prefab design may be the biggest driver behind growing consumer interest, however. Several prominent architects are radically rethinking the home with sustainable, contemporary alternatives to the increasingly passé cul-de-sac variety. A collaborative effort between Germany-based designers Patrick Frey and Björn Götte, for example, resulted in the modern simplicity of the Sommerhaus Piu, a chic and stylish summer cabin that is attracting buzz from all sides of the housing industry.
Prefab-ing the Future
The prefab housing market is projected to move over 750,000 units by 2015, and many new companies are popping up to meet the demand. One such company, pieceHomes, is based out of Los Angeles. Though based on the West Coast, much of their business is coming from the eastern seaboard of the United States. “Interestingly though, we’re seeing huge demand on the East Coast…particularly in North and South Carolina. It’s amazing. I never would have predicted it. That’s a market that has surprised us…and we’ll have to figure out how to serve it,” said founder Jonathon Davis in an interview with Low Impact Living.
“We’re used to dealing with clients on a one-to-one basis, and now we have so many people coming to us on the modular front. It’s a different way of doing business. And we’re having to adjust our practices to meet the demand.”
Jonathan’s wife and pieceHomes cofounder Mary Jo Davis described some of the ways their company is greening up the prefab market even further. “We’ll be using materials such as cementitious panels, galvanized corrugated steel siding, Mangeris wood (from sustainably managed forests). We’re also looking into other materials such as Ecoclad… we’re excited. Green and modern are merging. It’s a great time.”