You built that koi pond in the backyard. You’ve knitted an entire new wardrobe and learned how to re-wallpaper with the best of ’em. So what’s a DIY addict to do next? Perhaps it’s time for the ultimate project: constructing your own house. With a set of construction-ready parts that’s delivered to your doorstep, prefabricated houses are perhaps the biggest DIY project you can undertake. As inexpensive, efficient mass-produced structures, they were originally developed with the working class in mind, representing the ever-mobile American who’s always ready to move to a new opportunity. After falling out of favor in the ’80s and ’90s when suburban residential developments were all the rage, prefab is now back.
Prefab housing is nothing new — as early as 1908, Sears was selling homes out of their catalog. For $1,023, you could purchase The Hamilton, a two-story, ten-room home with a spacious covered porch. “Being practically square, every inch of space can be utilized to the very best advantage,” boasted the original advertisement. Much cheaper than homes designed by hired architects, mail-order houses were almost always purchased by first-time home owners. Though the models varied in style, each instant house was aesthetically conservative, appealing to a broad range of buyers. Prefab houses found new fans after World War II, when hundreds of soldiers returned home with the need for quick and cheap housing. Since then, it’s been a love-hate relationship, with prefab housing weathering more criticism than praise.
As concerns for the environment have risen over the past decade, prefab housing has reemerged as a green mascot for architecture because it requires fewer materials than traditionally constructed homes. Not only are many manufacturers latching onto the green movement, they’ve also adopted a sleek, modern look, one that comes with a hefty price tag. “I thought that finally, modern home design would be attainable by those of us who aren’t pulling in lofty six figure incomes,” laments architect Chad Ludeman in a thoughtful essay that aims to debunk the myths of prefab.
Recently, Lloyd Atler of Treehugger wrote about Blu Homes, a new company that aims to bring prefab back to its low-cost and efficient roots. For Atler, though Blu is a good start, most prefab manufacturers still care more about selling to wealthy clients rather than creating green housing for all. “The vision of those working in green modern prefab was to make it affordable and accessible to a large market, to do for housing what IKEA did for furniture,” writes Atler. “Instead, it is generally being used to build expensive country homes on huge exurban lots for individual homeowners, and in an era of climate crisis, that’s not solving a problem but is making it worse.”
It seems that prefab houses haven’t quite recaptured their audience; for now, the people who can actually afford the price tag would rather buy a customized, traditionally-built home. For the die-hard DIYers among us, the options are beyond our budgets. So until prefab housing manufacturers are able to once again provide affordable models, we’ll just have to keep our hands busy on other projects.
Would you ever consider living in a prefab house?