Does prefabrication make green houses more affordable? I asked this question almost a year ago when I was working on a feature article
on the topic. Back then the answer was "not quite yet."
A year later, the answer still seems to be "not quite yet," at least according to Chad Ludeman, developer of the 100K house
in Phildelphia, in an article on Jetson Green
. Actually, Ludeman puts it more strongly: "I just don't believe it is the best way of delivering modern design to the average new home buyer," he writes.
Ludeman is talking about a particular segment of prefabricated housing: the sleek modernist green homes by the likes of Michelle Kaufmann and LivingHomes. He looks at the issue from the four claims most often made in favor of prefabrication.
- Prefab is more affordable
- Prefab produces less waste
- Prefab takes less time
- Prefab is more "Green"
He argues that most of the modernist houses could be stick-built for less money, that over-engineering in the prefab industry makes the less waste argument specious, that long waiting lists for prefab homes make time savings irrelevant, and the green aspects of prefab are dependent on the less waste argument.
Ludeman's arguments are good ones, especially as the industry stands right now. Until green features--superinsulation, benign materials and finishes, and energy- and water-efficient appliances and fixtures--become standard, prefabrication isn't going to offer many benefits over stick-built homes in terms of cost. Environmentally, the jury is still out, but the potential benefits go far beyond the waste reductions (worker transportation, site impacts, etc.).
Prefabrication depends on volume to realize the benefits mentioned above. Companies producing modernist, green, or modernist-green prefabs are still small and don't have the volume to bring down material and labor per house costs. For larger companies, green features mean modifications to their stock plans, which means extra expense.
Ludeman suggests a semi-custom approach with prefabricated components, an approach many production builders already use for large developments. Adjusting this approach for infill development would be a great idea. There are several companies out there that mix and match prefabricated components in custom and semi-custom structures.
Unlike Ludeman, I'm not ready to give up on prefabrication just yet. I still think there's promise in the idea of prefabricated green, especially in the mainstream and affordable housing markets. As for green modernist housing, the benefits of prefabrication may never come through for such a relatively small market.
Image: A rendering of the 100K house.