Fabulous Prefab

Clean, modern designs, and affordable pricing make factory built houses an appealing option for buyers.

February 1, 2007

In the housing industry, the phrase "prefab" often conjures up the image of a generic-looking, nondescript house or a mobile home. However, there are many reasons why these stereotypes deserve to be wiped away.

Today's prefabricated homes (which include manufactured homes, modular homes, and kit homes) come in a wide array of styles and layouts — including a new wave of clean, modernist designs. And since they're usually more affordable than traditional "stick-built" homes, buyers can get more for their money.

When customers want to buy land and build a new house, or if they're considering an addition to their existing house, your knowledge of the prefab market can help them broaden their visions for a property.

The Perks of Prefab

The following in favor of prefab houses are compelling:

  • Shorter construction time. Sections of the home are built in a factory, making for quick on-site assembly. Some modular houses, a type of prefab, can be installed in a matter of days. There are also fewer delays due to bad weather, which often happens when building on-site.
  • Less expensive. The home's parts are created in a factory, which is more efficient and produces less waste than custom building. Also, less labor is needed to assemble the home after it's delivered to the site.
  • Eco-friendly designs. For the buyer who's interested in green design, many of today's prefab houses use eco-friendly materials and designs that keep energy bills low.

Good Design for the Masses

In the United States, prefab housing has been around for more than a century. In the early to mid-1900s, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold thousands of popular "kit" houses through its catalog. Pre-cut lumber and other building materials would arrive by railroad to be assembled on-site.

Though manufactured housing became less popular after the mid-1900s, it has continued to be available in recent decades, usually in traditional designs.

But in recent years, a modernist movement has reshaped the market. The goal: to make well-designed, energy efficient, modern houses more affordable, thus available to more people, says Josh Capistrant of Alchemy Architects, a St. Paul, Minn., company that designs WeeHouses, modular homes that are almost entirely pre-assembled before they arrive on-site (pictured above).

Inspired by the Storm

Prefab housing also has proven to be a smart option for Gulf Coast residents who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The pre-constructed homes are a welcome relief in the New Orleans area, where building materials and construction workers are in short supply. So-called "Katrina Cottages" are small, permanent houses that make stylish alternatives to FEMA trailers, according to Cusato Cottages LLC, the New York-based company that created the design.

Hurricane Katrina also gave way to new breed of luxury prefab homes. Jeriko House LLC, an architecture and design firm with offices in Palm Beach, Fla., and Beverly Hills, Calif., is marketing easy-to-assemble homes built with an interlocking aluminum framing system.

Shawn Burst, founder and CEO of Jeriko House, says the high-end homes will be "versatile yet rugged enough to stand up to the strictest U.S. earthquake and hurricane building codes." The homes feature exotic Asian teak wood finishes, coconut skin walls, Indian rosewood door handles, and stone, marble and ceramics from around the globe, according to a January press release.

Fewer Construction Headaches

Because a prefab house is mostly designed in advance, buyers have fewer design choices to make than if they began the homebuilding process from a blank slate, Capistrant says.

"Compared with custom building, the process is streamlined," he says. That's a big plus for consumers who think they'd be overwhelmed by the plethora of decisions they would have to make when building a new home from scratch.

However, even with prefab, there is some level of customization. Countertop materials, kitchen cabinet finishes, built-in features such as bookshelves, and window styles are some of the most common elements that the buyer can choose. Depending on the type of home, consumers also can choose the layout and size of their home.

When buyers choose a prefab house, they'll still have to arrange for building permits, electrical hookups, water supply, and a septic system or connection to the municipal sewage system — just as if they were planning for a custom-built home. Also, a foundation will have to be built.

How to Get Started

Whether it's a traditional prefab or a modernist example of factory-made housing, there are a number of ways prefab can be done. Buyers can select from kits, in which materials are cut to size at a factory and then assembled on-site; or they can choose a modular homes, which is mostly assembled at the factory and then shipped to the site.

The initial phase of buying a prefab will include lots of research, which means doing some online investigating into companies and styles, talking to architects and developers who have experience with prefab houses, and meeting with local contractors.

The buyer will then have to determine how much he or she can afford, and if necessary, arrange financing. The cost of a prefab house will vary depending on its size and style, and where it's being shipped and installed.

On the whole, though, installing a prefab house should be less expensive than custom building a comparable house. If someone were buying more than one of the same design, for a development or a family compound, for example, the price would go down even more — making prefab that much more appealing.

When Buyers Should Consider Prefab

Consumers who are in the market for a new home may want to at least consider the prefab option. Depending on their tastes and budget, they may find that prefab gives them the biggest bang for their buck. Likewise, if a home owner wants to add a guest house, a painting studio, or another room, a prefab addition could make perfect sense.

Learn More


This Web site is dedicated to investigating the market for affordable modernist factory-built residential architecture. The subject matter is limited to single-family dwellings.

Modular Homes Make Sense

This article at Bob Vila's home improvement Web site dispels common misconceptions about modular homes.

Leslie Banker is co-author of The Pocket Decorator (2004) and The Pocket Renovator(2007),  published by Universe.


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