Prefab Housing Works in Museum, if Not in Marketplace

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, October 11, 2008

The exhibit on prefabricated housing at New York's Museum of Modern Art is visually delightful and informative. But the story it tells is incomplete.

It has long been assumed that large-scale prefabrication would lower housing costs by saving time and money through standardization and mass production, which designers thought also would enhance construction quality. That hasn't happened. The exhibit notes that few industrialized housing proposals ever succeeded, but it doesn't explain why.

This omission does not reflect a lack of ambition on the part of curators. They not only assembled a wonderfully diverse collection of drawings, photos, models and full-size prefabricated housing components from around the world, but they also commissioned five prefabricated prototypes built full-size on the Museum of Modern Art's empty lot between 53rd and 54th streets.

The artful exhibit focuses on the design history of factory-made dwellings and dwelling construction systems. Some were experimental and unconventional, while others advocated use of industrial technology to produce relatively conventional dwellings. Free-standing suburban houses, urban housing complexes, visionary megastructures and high-tech, habitable capsules fill the gallery.

The exhibit encompasses designs for manufacturing entire dwellings or segments of dwellings, such as plug-in core units containing kitchen, bathroom, laundry and heating equipment. Meticulously engineered systems of structure, cladding and component assembly, including fasteners, are on display. Every basic building material is represented: wood, concrete, stone, steel, aluminum, glass, plastic, ceramics and even fabrics.

An Erector Set and sets of Lincoln Logs and Legos put visitors in the right frame of mind at the beginning of the exhibit, reminders that use of prefabricated components to create buildings begins in childhood.

Prefabrication was embraced early in the 20th century by modernists committed to social, economic, technological and aesthetic reform. Lauding the benefits of industrialized production, some architects as well as engineers and industrialists avidly pursued housing prefabrication. To them, spending months in the field constructing traditional homes by hand, one small piece at a time, seemed so 19th century, so antimodern.

For a hundred years, repeated attempts have been made to "modernize" and reform housing production methods. Most attempts have proved futile because of impediments unrelated to design or industrial technology. Rather the arduous real estate development process kept making assembly line production of dwellings unworkable.

Challenges stem from the complexities of acquiring land; obtaining zoning and land-use rights; coping with conflicting building codes; securing construction loans; meeting development cost targets; attracting qualified buyers or tenants; and obtaining mortgages.

Other factors complicating the development process and affecting design and cost, include shifting consumer tastes; unpredictable economic conditions; and cultural, regulatory and environmental disparities among regions.

All these factors undermine standardization and mass production. Prefabricating and shipping thousands of dwellings every week is technologically possible. But it's much harder to ensure that needed infrastructure, improved lots, building permits, mortgage financing and waiting customers will be ready for delivery of those dwellings every week.

The Museum of Modern Art's exhibit is mute about one other aspect of the story.

Prefabrication in fact pervades construction. Except for mobile and modular homes, dwelling units rolling off assembly lines are not the goal of construction industry prefabrication. Instead, countless factories and mills prefabricate construction elements -- lumber, masonry, metal products, windows and doors, insulation, plumbing fixtures, appliances -- to optimize design freedom and flexibility.

Prefabrication is alive and well, but at the scale of bricks, not buildings. Ironically, Lincoln Logs, Erector Set and Legos implicitly help complete the exhibit's story.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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