Friday, July 18, 2008

Prefab and Modular Housing: Solutions to the World's Housing Crisis?

Over five years ago, "Environmental Health Perspectives," the journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, wrote about the global housing crisis and its effect on human health and welfare. Sadly, the situation has not improved. Of course this crisis must be addressed, especially in areas where there's terrible suffering and disease as a result of lack of shelter and clean water. But it's also worthwhile for those of us who are more fortunate to rethink just how much space we need to live and how that space might be constructed.

I've written in the past about ultra-small houses ("Small House, Big Benefits?"), which offer interesting alternatives for many people. Another option we can consider is prefabricated housing. Prefab homes are manufactured off-site in standardized pieces that are easily transported to the site for quick assembly. They're inexpensive and durable, and have now, at last, qualified as trendy. In fact, the Museum of Modern Art in NYC is opening an exhibit on July 20 entitled, "Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling." The high-fashion angle is confirmed in an article in Gothamist.

If you want to be at the cutting edge of prefab homes, check out FabPrefab where the joys of modernist prefab construction are extolled.

An article on New Hampshire Public Radio's website explains that prefab housing has been around for over one hundred years and mentions an environmental benefit:

"Prefab housing also taps into the desire for more sustainable and ecologically-friendly architecture. "

There's also a video on the site that shows the assembly of the prefab "Cellophane House."

You can find a variety of green prefab housing choices at LowImpactLiving.

And what retailer would be a natural for getting into the prefab business? IKEA, of course. They're building prefab apartment houses in Sweden and soon in the UK. The IKEA-ized name for the product: BoKlok.

Another unusual approach to housing is discussed by Bob Vila, who writes on his website about using steel shipping containers for modular construction:

"Inter-modal construction means applying many methods – often unconventional ones – for housing and commercial construction. It frequently implies recycling materials for reuse as building components. More than 50 years ago, the U.S. converted steel shipping containers for use as portable command centers and medical facilities in Korea. Now, architects, designers, planners, and homeowners are finding renewed interest in these inter-modal steel building units (ISBUs) as they look for affordable, sustainable housing options for the 21st century."

If you can stand to read the tiniest font size ever created, in white on black, no less, the Houses of the Future website has interesting information about new steel modular building.

If you're an investor in housing, the International Property Investment website discusses the advantages of steel modular housing from the Australian perspective. L.A. readers, you may want to note the comment about its advantage in an earthquake: "it may collapse, but it won't kill you." Most comforting, if slightly mystifying.

And if you want to get the current perspective on our main concern, the global housing crisis, take a look at this inspiring video of Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity. The organization's motto is: "Building a more sustainable future using the power of design."

Of course, the power of architectural design is only part of the equation that will add up to a sustainable future; another part of it is each of us making thoughtful choices as consumers. If you're planning on buying or building a home or office space, this could be a great opportunity for you to contribute to that sustainable future by considering carefully what you need and how you can fulfill those needs. There might be an unusual solution that would be green, creative and, thanks to MOMA, very, very cool.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob


Michele said...

When DH and I bought a really neglected fixer upper house, a lot of people advised us to tear it down and start over. I looked into prefab, and could not find a way to make it any less expensive than new construction. There is a lot that needs to be added to the price on top of the actual house - site prep, geological studies, plans and permits, foundation, paving, etc, and these things are high dollar items. Maybe I didn't look in the right places, but this is what I found and I was quite surprised because prefab is promoted as much less expensive than new construction. We ended up renovating the existing house, which is what I wanted to do all along, and it has worked out well.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

That's very interesting, Michelle. Prefab construction is definitely promoted as less expensive, but I can see that all those other factors you mentioned could add up to a hefty amount.

I'll do a little more research and see what I can find out. I hope more readers will comment, too. It would be helpful to hear the experiences of others who've tried prefab or modular housing.

Glad your renovation worked out well. Thanks for your comment!