We at Inhabitat are bona fide prefab lovers. And while we tout the benefits of the prefab process every day, it’s also important to step back and examine the potential of the prefab market, its opportunities, and how it can be maximized to produce even more sustainable, affordable, and high-quality structures. Toby Long, of CleverHomes, has been one of prefab’s pioneers with the MiniHome and NowHouse. I had a chance to sit down with him and discuss the prefab “movement,” and how he sees it maturing in the future.
Emily: What do you think about the current prefab market? Do you see any additional opportunities for prefab to expand its scope into things like emergency housing solutions?
Toby: Emergency housing is essentially a temporary tent or trailer, not a gold standard of construction. We can make cooler tents, but that’s not a house. The world knows how to build cheap, but you can’t always build cheap. You can build with dirt, but it’s not good in an earthquake. And so trying to apply prefab- and the strategies that tighter control brings to construction- doesn’t immediately lend themselves to the economic opportunity. It seems like an obvious link but it really isn’t there yet. We’ve found that the building community is well-founded in every area. And you can’t bring a science into any building culture and say “we can now change the nature of economics.” Even the web bubble didn’t work.
Emily: But people tend not to think about the long-term costs of ownership. Yes, prefab may cost “x” for initial construction, but what about energy, etc.
Toby: Americans don’t usually think about long-term. People want better, faster, and cheaper. And you can’t have all three.
Emily: What do you think of using prefab technologies for non-residential projects?
Toby: My experience in architecture has been diverse. So I know kind of the common thread to a degree. And I think simplifies it too much, and it’s more about guiding a project successfully. But applying our strategies to one or the other- retail, commercial, residential, there isn’t a shift in what we do. The common platform is modern prefab green, and you can apply it to a variety of projects.
Emily: That being said, though, you don’t see as many commercial prefab projects- there are ton of great prefab concepts out there for schools, retail, office space, but so few of them have been built.
Toby: As far as the spectrum of construction, let’s say at the top there’s the big high-rise, where “green” is more systematic and scientific. And at the bottom you have individual homeowners. And the applications that prefab can tackle, at this point in time, is that small-scale end and the band within the middle. There are commercial builders who see applications but you’re not going to turn prefab into a high-rise. When you look at the spectrum and this condition of the construction economy, it’s more and more rigid as you climb into that commercial sector, and the innovation opportunities are significantly less in that upper band of commercial. A lot of these people are looking at the bottom line and how fast they can sell the space. And it’s just construction economics. As of yet, you can’t find meaningful measurable delta on what the advantages of prefab are. It’s just not big enough to move the construction sector. They’re saying, “Maybe, but prove it.”
On the other hand, there’s a lot of prefab innovation in the residential sector, and this is why our houses get built. Residential clients want to be innovative and are willing to take risks.
Plus there’s not a lot of case study out there yet. It’s a hard hurdle. Then you start talking about schools and it’s a whole other aspect of this that’s hard to get through. There have been some key people like Jennifer Siegal and Project Frog who have been really instrumental in putting some political pressure and saying there’s got to be a way to do it. Whether or not you can find builders to do it is a different question. But we should get to the point where we can start asking that question. Whether or not there are parts of the economy that can overcome this is a political question in the end.