Page D1.2 . 03 October 2012   
ArchitectureWeek - Design Department
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A Brief History of Prefab


One of the houses of the era of space travel was La Bulle six coques by the French architect Jean Maneval, which was used for an entire colony of holiday homes in the Pyrenean Mountains in 1967, literally making it look like the site of an invasion from outer space.

The space-ship-like pavilions, called Futuro, made of fiberglass reinforced polyester and designed by the Finnish architect Matti Suuronen in 1968, also look some how intergalactic.

These approaches supported the ideal of creating megastructures out of residential capsules: the architect Moshe Safdie, who was only 24 at the time, presented his megastructure Habitat 67 at the Expo '67 in Montreal: 158 housing units consisting of 354 concrete modules assembled as a conglomerate.

The British architectural group Archigram developed building structures made of residential capsules as an architectural Utopia, which could be expanded at will and joined together to form entire cities.

In 1972, the Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa built the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo; housing cells were layered around a prefabricated concrete core to form a fourteen-story residential tower.

The idea of residential capsule megastructures was repeatedly revived, as in Zvi Hecker's Ramot housing development in Jerusalem in 1974.

In addition, architects given to experimentation developed studies for houses that included elements of prefabricated construction, but which nevertheless remained one of a kind.

Representatives of British high-tech architecture such as Alison and Peter Smithson, Richard Rogers, and Norman Foster developed concepts for building techniques aimed at greater flexibility and technical refinement as a result of their fascination with factory-produced metal and plastic components, without seriously being interested in seeing their designs produced in series.

This was true ofRichard Rogers' Zip-Up House (1968), a bright yellow residential box resting on pink legs, which featured aluminum panels connected by neoprene gaskets and reminded one of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine".

In 1984 Richard Horden adopted the aluminum mast used as a load-bearing element in his Yacht House, a lightweight grid structure, from shipbuilding and suspended the roof and wall panels from it.

Ecoconscious 70s

The ecology movement of the 1970s brought an end to this euphoria with regard to technological progress and futuristic architectural dreams. Now, highly modern building materials that did not seem to be in harmony with a return to nature — such as plastic or aluminum — fell into disrepute.

This was further exacerbated by the fact that prefabricated elements had often been used to build high-density housing, which was now generally viewed negatively.

Hence, prefabricated building now came to be associated with the aesthetic and social failure of de-individualized, megalomaniac, prefabricated slab housing blocks clustered on the periphery of large cities. Thus, the acceptance of the prefabricated house in large parts of Europe remained low up until the 1990s.

Prefabricated construction only gradually began to again emancipate itself from a homespun, cheap, mass-produced image during the 1990s. This is mainly due to the use of computer-operated programs in the design and production processes. The prefabricated housing industry now stands at a juncture reminiscent of the dynamism of the 1920s and 1930s.

In the meantime, even star architects such as Daniel Libeskind have designed prefabricated houses, and these are produced and equipped according to state-of-the-art ecological criteria. Unlike the case during the early Modernist period, planners' visions are now no longer threatened by failure due to inadequate building technology.

Technology Takes Command?

Houses are emerging in Europe, Asia, and in North and South America, that are particularly interesting in terms of design. Rocio Romero's LV House (2000) for instance, or the weeHouse (2003) by Alchemy Architects, appear to be the most recent re-interpretations of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House.

Modern To Go

For many years now, companies like Muji in Japan or BoKlok in Scandinavia — and more recently also in Poland and England — have been supplying prefabricated houses in large numbers.

In Sweden alone, with only nine million inhabitants, 14,000 units are sold every year. Muji offers models designed by Kengo Kuma and Kazuhiko Namba that are as simple as they are elegant, and far more interesting than the building-kit houses offered by the multinational concerns Mitsubishi, Toyota, and Panasonic.

Katsu Umebayashi of F.O.B. Architects in Kyoto established the company F.O.B. Homes along with his colleague Kazu Kobayashi in Tokyo in 1999 in order to develop a modernistic prefabricated house that can be individually adapted to the clients' requirements, in terms of both the building's volume and the layout of the rooms, by the company's own team of designers.

In view of questions regarding energy consumption, recycling, sustain ability, and cost efficiency, ideas like Adam Kalkin's emerge of constructing houses entirely out of decommissioned shipping containers. The basic version of his Quik House consists of six reusable cargo containers. The individual modules are assembled using a crane in one day; the house is ready for habitation within three months.

The perforations required for doors and windows are made beforehand in consultation with the customer. Including heating and plumbing fixtures, the basic version of the Quik House, with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a total of 2,000 square feet of floor space, costs roughly $184,000.

Kalkin does not really act as an architect, but instead offers the customer a system that allows them to assemble their own living containers. However, concepts of this type have their limits. A decommissioned container can be purchased for roughly 2,000 Euros, while a new one from the factory costs roughly 4,000 Euros. An old container intended for conversion is dented and rusty and requires extensive refurbishment: doors and windows must be cut out and sufficient insulation must be provided.

Container transportation to a site ultimately costs roughly 9.00 Euros per mile and a crane is typically needed to install the container modules on site. This is a clear indication of how an idea, which is interesting from the standpoint of recycling, becomes problematic not only in economic terms, but also ecologically, in terms of the carbon footprint made by refurbishment and transport.

What will the prefabricated house of the future look like? Will it have steel frame or be a wooden structure, built as a skeleton or panel system? Or will there be yet again a greater tendency to shift to the old idea of the "residential cell" and to favor residential units that can be easily moved and quickly deployed anywhere? The Modernist ideals of producing intelligently designed, bright, and low-cost living spaces are currently being revitalized.   >>>

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This article is excerpted from PreFab Houses by Peter Gössel, Arnt Cobbers, Oliver Jahn, copyright © 2010, with permission of the publisher, Taschen.


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The Lustron prefabricated house (1948), designed by Carl Strandlund for Columbus, Ohio-based Lustron Corporation, featured modular metal cabinetry and state-of-the-art appliances.
Photo: Ohio Historical Society Extra Large Image

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This house is an example of the Maison standard métropole type of prefabricated housing that was designed by Jean Prouvé.
Photo: Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou Bibliothčque Kandinsky Extra Large Image

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Carl Koch designed the post-and-beam Techbuilt line of modular homes.
Photo: Courtesy Larry Weinberg Extra Large Image

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The U.S. Department of Housing commissioned Norman Cherner to design this Pre-Built House (1957).
Photo: Courtesy Benjamin Cherner Extra Large Image

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The Kunststoffhaus fg2000 (1970) prefab home was designed by Wolfgang Feierbach using a fiberglass composite material for its exterior finish.
Photo: Klaus Meier-Ude Extra Large Image

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The Tanja prefab house, finished largely in wood, was designed by Heinrich Bernhard Hellmuth for Schneckenburger & Company.
Photo: Reiner Blunck Extra Large Image

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Studio Aisslinger designed the prefab Loftcube house, a sleek, heavily glazed home pod designed to be lifted off the ground on four piers.
Photo: Courtesy LoftCube GmbH Extra Large Image

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PreFab Houses by Peter Gössel, Arnt Cobbers, Oliver Jahn.
Image: Taschen Extra Large Image


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