Gallery: INTERVIEW: We Talk With Prefab Home Architect Toby Long


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.

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  1. Royal March 9, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    Right on Blair. You’ve got to SELL these prefabs if you want people to buy them. It’s the third half of the battle.

  2. Royal March 9, 2007 at 2:19 pm

    I live in a trailer. Prefab. Far cheaper than these designer models on inhabitat. I also agree that modular building kits (insert tab A into slot B) would be a better (and expandable) way to go. However, if the designers ever get there houses to be cheaper than trailers, I’ll buy.

  3. Blair March 3, 2007 at 3:41 pm

    I appreciate Toby’s commitment to, and passion for, prefab. His candor regarding the lack of “measurable delta” is admirable and the shortcomings of this niche market are well known. Many of the issues related to weak market-uptake can be resolved with more effective communications, perhaps with a nationally-funded PR campaign exploring the cost-of-ownership financials in more detail. It’s not particularly difficult to crunch some numbers and present a convincing forecast that demonstrates higher wealth-retention with prefab, so why hasn’t it been done yet?
    Nevertheless, there are similarities inherent in prefab that resembles the “irrational exuberance” in the dot com boom. Many people I know were disappointed by the undelivered promise of affordable, modern prefab, and this important shortcoming persists, in my opinion at its peril. At the risk of oversimplifying, there is a shrinking middle-class in North America that is more and more likely to be fixated on the start-up bottom line despite the appreciable discount in ownership cost.
    The aesthetic question is lacking daylight as well: If prefab can morph into mock Tudor and other ersatz styles it may have a chance of gaining some market share. The modernist bias certainly isn’t converting the traditionalists in North America. As unfortunate as that may be there is little evidence to suggest that the prefab market is responding to this challenge/opportunity. Perhaps Toby’s remark “regardless of the typology” hints at a change to come in this regard. The resounding benefits of prefab should be typology neutral. It’s so obvious why.
    My eyes begin to glaze over, more and more frequently as time passes, whenever I see or read about a new prefab design with built-in luxury amenities and yet touting the same old song about sustainability and other ethical considerations. It’s wearing thin and I’m not alone. Without a concerted effort at tackling the PR challenges, aesthetic questions and economies of scale, I fear this niche will become a footnote.

  4. Richie March 3, 2007 at 12:40 pm

    Transporting ‘pre-fab’ components over long distances and over water is just too costly. I think that the current ‘Pre-fab’ concept of factory manufacturing large sections of a house and then transporting them to the site is not the way to go. I think that focusing on creating a new ‘kit of parts’ that are easily manufactured and assembled by low skill labor all around the world, is where the ‘pre-fab’ concept can morph into the ‘low cost / high value owner build, craftsperson build’ concept. And I believe that this is the way forward for the ‘pre-fab’ idea. ‘Pre-fabbing’ a whole new set of component parts which will enable low cost / high quality / craftsperson build construction is what has my ‘vote’.

    In his ‘Usionian Houses’, Frank Lloyd Wright came up with owner-build, or builder/local craftsperson build, designs. He created a cement block product which stacked like ‘Legos’, in that the tops had inset ridges and the bottoms received them… making these blocks pretty much self-aligning. The ‘Case Study Houses’ were another example of cost effective modern designs that used industrial, off the shelf components as a ‘kit of parts’. And in his book: “fabricating HOUSES from component PARTS”, Columbia University Industrial design professor, Norman Cherner, presents designs that are owner/craftsman build projects which cost $6,000 to build in 1957. So what would they cost today… $60,000 ?

    In considering various ‘pre-fab’ options for a home I’ll build on the tropical Island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, I’ve decided to emulate the Simon Ungers ‘Cube House’ which stands in Ithaca, New York. () . It will be a 20 foot, or 24 foot, rebar reinforced concrete block Cube with an interior ‘L’ shaped mezzanine & interior staicases and a roof deck.

    Surprisingly… rebar reinforced concrete block construction is GREEN… as it stands intact for a very long time. Concrete block doesn’t rot, fall prey to insects or burn like wood… so it’s one time use of materials over a 50 to 100 year lifespan is very green indeed !

    The Clever ‘Mini-Home’ is a really cool design. However, I can have a 2 story concrete block structure built in the tropics, with more square footage, for the same or less cost than the single story ‘Mini-Home’ would cost me. And the concrete block thing is green, if you examine it from the right ‘angle’.

  5. George March 3, 2007 at 12:29 pm

    Toby’s comments are spot-on. Traditionally consumers have not been overly “life-cycle cost” oriented (and hence neither were developers/builders etc). That is changing slightly, which is why it is not surprising to me that immeidate opportunities in prefab can play well in affordable housing AND particularly where there is a condo os similar assocaition, i.e. buyers pay a lot of attention to HOA fees, which provide the clearer link to a total-lifecycle cost viewpoint…this point should not be missed and in my redevelopment work, this is the key link to moving the agenda forward. Having said that, if overall construction costs, which are clearly the majority of life-cycle costs, are too high for a market, then the concept can’t work. The good news is that people like Toby are advancing the cause. Thanks.

  6. Alberto March 2, 2007 at 10:54 pm

    I saw an interview with Clever Homes in Podtech, very good interview his passion for “green” come through.

  7. Toby Long, AIA March 2, 2007 at 7:21 pm

    Just to add some clarity to my view of the issue…….

    I mentioned to Emily, when we spoke, that we are finding both meaningful challenges AND opportunities to the applications of prefab technologies outside of the residential marketplace. We are actively working with several projects which are not homes (one of which Emily will spotlight in an upcoming post), and we have been learning about the subtle, but meaningful, distinctions in the application of alternative techniques in each project type. The sustainable design and construction community has been promoting the “long term” advantages and benefits of building with sustainable material technologies for many years now. We find that many inquiries we field with perspective projects drill into the costs associated with the construction alone, and not the long term costs associated with ownership. Our cultures’ obsession with the “start-up” costs, and not the operational costs, drive many people away from the consideration of utilizing better construction systems in their projects. I find that this is only amplified in the commercial sectors of the construction community. Developers are, for large part, focused on the immediate resale of their products, and (for understandable reasons) are focused on the bottom-line for the construction dollars at work in any given project. While alternative material technologies, and prefabricated techniques, can assist in reducing the costs of construction, as measured by faster times to market, I find that these discussion points are not well founded within existing case study and accessible construction data. As a result, it is the single-family homeowner clients who gravitate towards the lower-cost-of-ownership message, and healthy/sustainable attributes of our offerings. I believe this is contributing to the innovation in the residential marketplace and the products/systems being offered to this sector.

    We are working hard to include a “better materials equals a better construction process equals a better end-product” message into all of our projects, regardless of the typology, and we have been finding great success in connecting with a commercial audience motivated to explore the benefits of these techniques. As an example, the affordable housing market is perfect for this paradigm shift, as the costs of ownership have contributed greatly to the failure of past affordable housing developments. By utilizing better technologies, and building better homes for this community, the costs of living can be reduced, assisting with the “affordability” of home ownership. Likewise, we have several development projects which are actively seeking the for-sale market benefits of offering a safer, healthier, more efficient, and greener product to the prospective home buyer.

    As these ideas gain more traction within the construction community, my hope is that more information about the benefits of prefab will become available to the public, and that we will be able to promote these techniques as important to the bottom line as well as important to the environment. This will be part of the successful implementation of these ideas and techniques into the light commercial construction and residential tract developer marketplaces.

  8. George March 2, 2007 at 11:21 am

    Editor–I left out a key word in my comment: “easily found on the coasts but NOT where the growth is”

  9. George March 2, 2007 at 11:19 am

    It’s great to see people like Toby at work, CleverHomes taking a lead. We all know the advantages and desirability. But with regard to broader construction potential (vs. one-offs or a handful). I was not suprised by his comment that “you can’t find meaningful measureable delta on what the advantages are”. As a significant real estate redeveloper in Arizona, I see a big unaswered problem…the costs of prefab remain too high to make a broad difference in a low price point market (hence prefab is easily found on the coasts but where the growth is), and the market is not yet willing to pay a big enough premium (a la Prius) for the “pleasure” of going this route. I hope to help close th gap, because this is the wave of the future. Everyone just needs to start thinking much bigger! Thanks, Toby.

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