About this Article
Written by: Cynthia Kwan
Written on: December 3rd, 2007
Tags: civil engineering, lifestyle, building & architecture
Thumbnail by: Wouter Hagens/Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
In Fall 2007, Cynthia was a 5th year Architecture student at the University of Southern California. She is heading to Harvard University for her graduate studies. She hopes to contribute to the world of sustainable architecture in the future.
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Volume IX Issue I > Modular Prefabricated Housing
This article will investigate the process of designing and building prefabricated, modular houses. Positive qualities such as eco-friendliness, cost-effectiveness and efficiency are reflected in the procedures of construction and use of materials. Modular housing has many advantages over traditional site-built houses, and it is suggested that the prefabrication housing technique can be one of the most effective solutions to housing our booming global population.


"The dream of packaged kit houses purchased via mail order catalog or off-the-shelf has always been, in some respects, the holy grail of modern architecture," [1]. When thinking about prefabricated (or prefab) housing, one often pictures a half-finished house carried by a gigantic truck on the freeway (see Fig. 1). The most striking aspects might be both the boldness and sophistication embodied in that picture. The traditional impression is of a house being transformed into a "floating" mobile unit, traveling across town or country, looking for its anchoring point. On the other hand, the housing unit is sophisticated in its make, the detail of structure, and the autonomous and self-contained manner in which everything necessary for a functional house is there. It's like a full-scale, meticulously detailed toy house, readily functional once tied to a foundation and connected with water, power and sewage. You will see that they are no "toys" at all, but rather low-cost, efficient and pragmatic solutions to one of our basic needs - shelter.
Wouter Hagens/Wikimedia Commons
Figure 1: Transport of a pre-fabricated house by truck.
In terms of prefabricated or factory-made houses, there are four major categories: modular, panelized, precut, and mobile. The difference between the first three types is the degree of completion of the house kit package while leaving the factory. The modular type is the most complete; it is a 95 % completed house that is transported to the construction site in several pieces. This type of prefab house will be the focus of this article.


The prefabricated construction method has gained popularity several times in western history and has recently become of interest again. Its cost-effectiveness and efficiency are most attractive to people when there are social or economic uncertainties, or when society needs immediate massive housing to accommodate its population. For example, in the United States there was increased interest in prefab housing after World War I due to the return of soldiers and an expanding population. This happened again during and after World War II, which was followed by the post-war baby boom phenomenon [1]. In the same periods in Europe, the vast destruction caused by the wars called for massive production of temporary, if not permanent, housing to accommodate displaced people. Consequently, the demand for prefab housing increased and was met in the form of large apartment complexes (see Fig. 2).
[image=314 file="\'Prefab\'_hou​​uk__389577-300x200.j​pg" placement="left"]Fig​ure 2: These prefab houses were built immediately after World War II to provide a quick solution to the shortage of houses.[/image]In response to these calls for prefab houses, many designers and famous architects had devoted a significant portion of their careers to designing modular housing solutions, including noble designers Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius. In the 1950s, Arts and Architecture magazine based in Los Angeles started an experimental housing campaign called Case Study Houses (CSH). It called for architects from all over the nation to design and build inexpensive and efficient housing prototypes, with 20 of the 36 submissions being built by the end of the campaign. The most famous examples include Case Study House #8 by the Eames couple, which was erected by hand in 3 days, and the Stahl House [2] by Piere Koenig. These designs not only utilized new building materials, but also emphasized the efficiency and ease of assembly. The Case Study Houses were influential to modern prefabricated housing designs.