Barry Bergdoll: Deconstructing Prefab

Forget the trailer park image; today's prefab homes are stylish, flexible, and eco-friendly. The curator of a blockbuster exhibition on prefab residences talks about the stylish, eco-friendly potential of residential "boxes."

November 1, 2008

A recent exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art paid homage to the prefabricated home as a cultural testament of efficiency and affordability with five daring model homes erected on a lot adjacent to the museum. Barry Bergdoll, curator of the show "Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling," remains on a mission to alter public perception about these mass-produced housing options.

Did you organize "Home Delivery" because the prefab niche is growing in this tough economic period?

BERGDOLL: I wanted to do an exhibit about how architectural design is changing radically with computer-aided manufacturing, and I thought the most interesting exploration of this topic was in the theme of prefabricated housing. Prefabbers predate the credit crisis. The more interesting question is why there was a renaissance of interest in prefab during what appeared to be a more prosperous time.

So how do you explain that?

BERGDOLL: One reason has been a new niche culture for reviving the forms of postwar modernism. This is represented by the readership of such magazines as Wallpaper, Dwell, and the like, which have fostered a kind of hip retro chic. Coupled with it are real concerns about ecology. The other major force is a renewed interest by architects in new manufacturing processes in everything from materials to business information modeling.

Historically, prefabricated housing hasn’t appealed to a wide cross-section of buyers. Why?

BERGDOLL: In the United States, there’s been a steady manufactured housing market, but it’s usually appealed to people who couldn’t afford a large piece of land and individual housing. Few turned to manufactured housing as their first choice since 99 percent of it is unadventuresome, uninspired. Yet, it can be a viable exciting alternative and is, in many places in the world. One in six Japanese houses is prefabricated by six companies, including Toyota Home. The show’s System3 House is a good house to learn from [to dispel stereotypes about prefab houses]—from its finishes to styling and enormous spatial possibilities for expansion.

Do certain prefab houses work better in certain locations because of climate, topography, or regional design preferences? 

BERGDOLL: Yes, for sure. The Cellophane House works best in an urban situation because of its verticality. But prefab houses offer mass customization, which is a big theme of the show. Prefab homes can be adapted in the same way that cars are mass customized. You can change finishes, accessories, upholstery.

What’s the show’s important lesson for home owners?

BERGDOLL: We can benefit from ecologically responsible practices in manufacturing. The takeaway is that there are new materials that are more available and help the world face environmental challenges to produce economical, aesthetic, and energy-pleasing designs that represent responsible architecture. The Cellophane House incorporates sustainable materials and operates off-grid.

Why might a real estate salesperson want to talk up prefab to a client?

BERGDOLL: If someone’s sitting with a piece of land but can’t afford a dream house, a prefab house may be the solution. System3 and the Cellophane House offer flexibility and can get bigger and smaller. Prefab houses allow buyers to have a house quickly.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).