The Short History of Prefab
This early example of a modular house is what many people still think of when they hear the word modular.
Photo by: Epoch Homes, Ltd.
After seeking out other forms of prefab house construction, I started researching prefab systems to understand the varieties and their differences. There remains much confusion over the term “prefab” and its larger family of “building systems,” which refer to all types of construction manufactured and assembled partially or entirely in a factory, plant, or yard.
As a concept, prefabrication isn’t new. Factory-built houses in the United States date back to the catalog houses of the early 1900s. These houses gave a working family the opportunity to own a home at a reasonable cost, which was made possible by the mass construction of parts and bulk purchasing by the factories. Mail-order kit houses with all of the parts required to build the house were sold by companies such as Alladin Homes, Montgomery Ward, Bennett Homes, and Sears Roebuck and Company. The parts were produced in factories and shipped to the site, where the house was assembled by the homeowners or local builders. Most of the houses were labeled “bungalows,” although they came in a variety of styles. Options such as paint color, type of wood trim, and door and cabinet design were selected in advance. Add-ons, such as porches and freestanding garages, were available for an extra fee.
Architects in the early 20th century, including such visionaries as Buckminster Fuller and Frank Lloyd Wright, began to experiment with prefabricated design. Although there was some public interest, people generally thought these houses looked boxy and odd. But by the 195 0s, the prefab home industry had found its footing and began to focus on low-cost small houses rather than great design. It has only been in the last decade or two that architects, builders, and homeowners have begun to take advantage of what is called, in the industry, systems-built homes. Along the way, good design has crept back into the process. As you’ll see in the pages to come, prefab is now much more than small and affordable.