Pre-Fab is Ab-Fab

I remember playing with Legos as a kid. The bricks were modular and contained prefabricated specialty elements, yet I never felt that my creativity was threatened by these constraints. Why is it then that as grown-up architects we bristle at the idea of modular and prefabricated construction? We think “trailer park” and wide load trucks on the freeway. We think that all design has been taken to the lowest common denominator. In reality, the prefabricated industry has evolved into a highly sophisticated range of projects. While you can buy the cringe-inducing whole house, you can also buy pre-engineered systems that are your kit of parts to make amazing buildings. Prefabricated elements can also be a more planet-friendly solution.

One of my favorite sustainability sites, Inhabitat, had a recent article on a prefabricated house built in Seattle by Greenfab and designed and assembled by HyBrid Architecture. The model home is working towards LEED Platinum and qualifies as restorative with it’s net zero footprint and ability to generate its own power. While Greenfab makes a kit of modular parts, they also can work with clients to create custom design or just to reassemble their offerings in new ways. There is also a great article in ED+C magazine by Dru Meadows that details how by reducing waste on the front end, prefabricated construction can outperform other downstream efforts using the more traditional reduce, reuse recycle method. It’s a dramatic difference. Enough to make all of use reconsider prefabricated and modular construction as a matter of conscience.
Prefabricated elements have better quality control and produce less construction waste. They also allow a higher degree of integrated elements like smart technology, LED systems or materials that contribute to the design or flexibility of a component. I myself have always dreamed of a “walls on wheels” concept that truly allowed one to adjust the spaces to your individual needs. The one thing we know about the spaces in our world is that they need to support ongoing change of needs and function. Another plus of prefab: pieces and parts can be adaptively re-used to suite the needs of the occupants over time and easily dismantled and recycled at the end of the house’s life. Because they can be delivered to the site 80% installed, the actual construction time on site is greatly reduced.

So what changes? As a designer, you should develop a relationship with either a pre-fab constructor or manufacturers of pre-fab elements so that you can collaborate with them. I have also pulled together some advice to help you channel the modular mindset (you can also visit the Modular Building Institute to learn more):

1. Know your team. The fewer players, the fewer points of accountability, which is always a good thing. Many modular construction companies will also provide the option of constructing smaller commercial or residential structures as part of their package, which further enhances the design-build relationship.

2. Understand the kit of parts, what is considered partially custom and fully custom. Don’t be afraid to bring your imagination along. Because the modules are factory built, you can develop prototypes to get the design to work perfectly.

3. Design mindful of how each element can be a variation on a theme. The more repeatable modules you can use, the greater the efficiency of construction and lower the cost. This can be an especially effective strategy for large buildings like hospitals that contain many repeated elements like headwalls that are found in some form across many different departments.

 4. Think more about how the building will be used and how each element will support that use. A module doesn’t have to be as dumb as: wall, 10 foot high stud with drywall. Instead it can be: wall 10 foot high with built-in light source and touch activated media.

Far from being a limit on your design sensibilities, prefabricated and modular elements can actually set your imagination free and allow you to do things that would not be possible or feasible with traditional construction methods. Please share your thoughts and experiences with modular construction. I'm interested to hear the good, bad and ugly as well as how you got over any negative stereotypes about this construction method.