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Prefab
By Allison Arieff & Bryan Burkhart

November 17, 2003 /
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1.Prefab.jpgPhoto: Ignacio Martinez

Pretty Fabulous: Prefab... provides a much needed look at new ideas in prefabricated housing./Architecture magazine

Prefabricated building systems can be traced as far back as the seventeenth century when a panelized wood house was shipped from England to Cape Ann in 1624 to provide housing for a fishing fleet.

Swedes introduced a notched building-corner technique for the construction of log cabins just a little over a decade later. Kit houses were shipped by rail during the California gold rush in 1849. Iron buildings were shipped to British colonies later in the century. By the early part of the twentieths century, architects and inventors were experimenting with these systems for housing.

Prefabrication was the holy grail of modernism: the ideal way to rationalize the building process, achieve economies of scale, and bring good design to the masses. Sadly, the only manufactured housing to win wide acceptance was the trailer; architect-designed prototypes seldom left the boards.

2.Prefab.jpg

"A House for Contemporary Life" The Aluminaire. Albert Frey's prototype for a mass-production house was the first designed by a disciple of Le Corbusier and the first all-light steel and aluminum house built in America.

Prefabricated houses have done a lot to earn their reputation for being cheap and ugly, and indeed, the prevailing vision of prefab-endless rows of cookie-cutter structures built with cheap materials and substandard construction methods is, unfortunately, fairly accurate. 

But now and throughout prefab's history, there have been many exceptions to the rule. Groundbreaking proposals from architects and designers such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Jean Prouvé, Albert Frey, Richard Rogers, Archigram, Kisho Kurokawa, Shigeru Ban, and Philippe Starck, have emerged since Sears, Roebuck & Co. first marketed their Houses by Mail to the general public in 1908.

3.Prefab.jpgImage courtesy Rob Schweitzer and The Arts & Crafts Society.

Sears, Roebuck & Co. of Chicago sold about 100,000 mail order kit houses from 1908 to 1940. Catalogs featured a selection of models that the buyer could customize to his own specifications. Sears' goal was to make ordering a home as simple as ordering any household product.

Prefab presents a series of innovative homes and concepts that boldly demonstrates how far this much maligned building technique has come, and how far it can go. In doing so, Prefab endeavors to inspire a change in the way people think of housing and the way the architects, builders, developers, and financial institutions approach it - and ultimately, the way individuals live in it.

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Completed in 1972 the Nakagin Capsule Tower was the worlds first capsule architecture built for actual use. Kisho Kurokawa's tower was meant to draw residents from the suburbs back to central Tokyo, and was designed to meet the changing needs of residents.  Photo courtesy Kisho Kurokawa

5.Prefab.jpgImage courtesy Wes Jones Partners

Like heavy Legos for grown-ups, shipping containers made of steel and aluminum can be used as an inexpensive basic "building block" for a variety of facilities and housing. Containers are stronger than an average, conventionally built residence and can be used for either temporary or permanent structures.

Containers are easily expandable and can take on a variety of appearances with the addition of new materials to existing facades. Wes Jones Partners used standard shipping containers as the basic model for construction of their "Technological Cabins" in the High Sierras.

6.Prefab.jpgBenthem House
Benthem Crouwel Architects

Originally designed for a competition, the container of glass and steel was later transported to a new location where it was reborn as the architect's family home.
Jan Benthem explains: "For me designing and building the house was not so much an experience in designing a new type of housing that could be prefabricated in large numbers as it was an exercise in using an absolute minimum in terms of program, materials and weight.  The house had a limited time to spend on the site so it had to be very cheap or relocatable - and it had to be strong and light".

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The frame consisted of octagonal connectors made from 3 mm welded-steel plate.  The space frame, sitting on four precast-concrete industrial flooring slabs placed directly on the ground, was bolted to the slab. The floor decking consisted of composite panels made from high-density polyurethane foam faced on both sides with plywood, normally used for refrigeration truck bodies. Solid walls and partitions were constructed from the same panels. The walls of the main living space consisted entirely of 12 mm thick panels of reinforced glass and acted as the main support for the roof deck.

8.Prefab.jpgTilt-Up Slab House
David Hertz, Syndesis
Venice, california

David Hertz's innovative Tilt-Up Slab House was designed in response to a set of difficult conditions. The lot was tiny-just 32 feet wide by 80 feet long, and on the corner of a narrow alley. The tilt-up concrete methodology was the most economical way to enclose space on a large scale.

Hertz's design used fourteen six-inch-thick tilt-up white concrete panels that faced each other along the longitudinal edges of the site in order to create an elongated interior space. Eleven panels were poured off-site and then hauled in by truck; the remaining three were poured on-site and then placed in position by connecting them to the structural steel.

The process took ten hours. "it's not so much its form, it needed to be a big volume, but it's fascinating that the building arrives on a truck and is assembled," says Hertz. "The beauty of a panelized system is that you are actually designing the module, the real limitations of prefab is that one has to appreciate the aesthetics.  For those who are looking for integrity and an honest statement of construction and materials prefab wall systems can offer that."

9.Prefab.jpgShufl.e House / Microflats
Piercy Conner Architects
London

The Shufl.e House, designed for the UK Concept House competition in 1999, is comprised of lightweight and wheel-mounted pods that can plug on to one another or be transported to another location.

With Shufl.e Conner envisioned a single-family dwelling arranged over two floors, providing a three bedroom unit with a rear balcony, roof terrace, and lower-floor and garden access. Borrowing from boat design, the architects developed an inventive system of folding partitions, secret walls, and bathroom/kitchen equipment that allows for clutter-free living.

Note: Many of the houses presented in the book are not prefabricated in the strictest sense of the word, but all incorporate some elements of prefabrication.

Allison Arieff is a writer, senior editor of the architecture magazine Dwell, and coauthor of Trailer Travel: A Visual History of Mobile America. She is also the editor of several books on art and culture, including Airstream: A History of the Land Yacht and Hatch Show Print: The History of a Great American Poster Shop.
Bryan Burkhart is the designer and co-author of Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht and Trailer Travel: A Visual History of Mobile America. As creative director of his own firm, Modernhouse, he has designed books for Taschen, Chronicle Books, and Gibbs Smith, Publisher.

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Publisher: Gibbs Smith

Last updated: December 19, 2013

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