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Modular Prefab Building Movement Explodes as More Work Remotely

Posted by Elizabeth Burton on

Modular Prefab Building Movement Explodes as More Work Remotely

Modular prefab building

"Prefab ADUs are the perfect solution for those in need of a separate home office." - Lucy Wang, "6 Prefab Companies Ready to Build Your New Backyard Office," Dwell

From tiny homes to mammoth mansions, over the last few years we at Living Deep have seen modular prefab building revolutionize residential construction. Perfect for those on a short timeline or limited budget, modular prefab construction offers a faster alternative to stick or traditional construction. Prefab construction of the past might call to mind manufactured homes and trailers -- either towed to their new locations or deposited by a crane. However, many modern prefab homes are actually quite luxurious and often include state-of-the-art tech and flawlessly integrated features. Today, companies assemble these buildings within their own warehouses and quickly unfold them on site or deliver the entire pod pre-built. The convenience of off-site assembly and the availability of collapsible materials and/or small size designs has made them ideal. The lightning fast on-site construction of modular, prefab structures has made them exceptionally appropriate for ADUs. As most know, more Americans have transitioned over the last year to remote work due to stay-at-home orders and concern over the COVID-19 pandemic. During this period, the glaring absence of usable office space in our homes has become even more apparent. Rather than remodel a room in one’s house -- where the space might not be available -- workers have turned towards modular ADUs. Follow below to learn about how the modular prefab building movement has exploded as more Americans work remotely.

The Difference Between Modular and Prefab Homes

Difference between modular and prefab

"Prefab, Modular, Panel Built, and Manufactured are sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably." - Modular Homeowners, "Do You Know The Difference Between Prefab And Manufactured Homes?"

“Prefab” is generally considered an overarching term under which “modular” and “panel built” homes both fall. According to the article “The Difference Between Prefab And Manufactured” from Modular Homeowners, “Prefab, Modular, Panel Built, and Manufactured are sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably.” Some prefab homes are built in panels, which are then transported to the building site and assembled in a more traditional manner of construction. In these instances, the foundation is laid and the floor of the home is placed on top. After this, a crane or crew directs each panel into its slot. Modular Homeowners explains that “this type of construction can be useful in building houses that don’t work neatly as modules.” 

This type of prefab construction is often preferred for its affordability. According to Modular Homeowners, it can be “less expensive to transport a large building in panels than in modules.” Unlike panel built prefab homes, modular prefab homes are constructed in pods within the company or designer’s warehouse or other off-site building. The modules are then delivered to the final building site and “secured together to form a whole.” Some modular homes are constructed from traditional building materials, while others are created for unconventional materials like shipping crates.

An Abridged History of Prefab Homes in America

Sears Roebuck prefab houses

"More than 100,000 houses were sold between 1908 and 1940 through Sears’s Modern Homes program." - Sears Archives, "History of Sears Modern Homes"

The concept of prefab construction has existed for hundreds of years. However, it was catapulted to popularity in the US after the implementation of the Transcontinental Railroad during the Industrial Revolution. The railroad made shipping large loads fast and affordable. After this, the modern prefab home was introduced to American consumers by a surprising source in the early 20th century. Beginning in the 1910s, prefab homes were sold as kits to consumers by department store giant Sears and Roebuck. According to the Sears Archives post “History of Sears Modern Homes,” between 1908-1940, over a hundred thousand prefab homes were sold by the company. Sears would ship entire homes via railroad, “from precut lumber, to carved staircases, down to the nails and varnish.” Each family who purchased a Sears prefab home was able to choose design elements. These were chosen “according to their needs, tastes, and pocketbooks,” much as is done when designing prefab homes today. 

Sears’ prefab homes were shipped to the buyer along with instructions and materials. The buyer could then construct the home his or herself on site. Sears’ modern prefab homes were an excellent option for homebuyers unable to qualify for a mortgage loan. They were also suitable for those unable to afford a traditional home or unprepared to wait for the home to be built. The article explains that at the time, Sears “estimated it would take only 352 carpenter hours” to assemble one of their prefabs. This was opposed to the “583 hours [required] for a conventional house—a 40% reduction!” When Sears began offering quickly approved loans to buyers in 1911, interest in the company’s prefab homes shot up. Famous architects like Frank Lloyd Wright had previously designed prefab homes in the nineteen teens. However, interest in prefab homes truly skyrocketed during the Great Depression. It was during this period that the US government began their search for ways to house the poor and unhoused. 

It was during this period that the type of materials used in residential prefab construction changed -- including industrial materials like metal and fiberglass. However, interest in prefab homes waned after World War II, notes the article “An Introduction to Prefab Homes & Buildings” from BuildingGuide. According to the article, “notable architects such as... Marcel Breuer and Buckminster Fuller added their expertise to the market in the 1930s and 40s." However, "once the war ended, people began shifting their residences back to classic home construction.” The government did encourage those purchasing homes through the GI Bill to consider prefab homes. They did so because prefab homes were more affordable and could be built anywhere -- including in new or growing communities. 

What Modular Prefab Building Offers the Public Today

Prefabs as solution to natural disasters

"Both prefab and tiny homes have the potential to play a tremendous role in providing necessary support and temporary—or even permanent—housing during the critical period after a natural disaster." - Kate Reggev, "How Tiny and Prefab Homes Can Help People Recover After Natural Disasters," Dwell

Since the 1950s, prefab homes have served many purposes for the US government -- particularly for FEMA. They have been “deployed” to sites of natural disasters as temporary housing for victims. Kate Reggev explains this application in her article “How Tiny and Prefab Homes Can Help People Recover After Natural Disasters” for Dwell. She writes that modular prefab homes are perfect for disaster response for a “wide range of factors.” They are ideal due to their “small size, their short construction timelines [and] their rigorous construction." Reggev writes that prefab homes can "withstand road travel and crane installation (and therefore also resistance to future natural disasters)." Modular prefabs are also often designed and manufactured locally, making them attractive from an environmental point of view. Today, interest in prefab homes has shot up because of its many applications. Affordable and quickly assembled, prefab homes can be used as temporary housing for disaster victims. They can also function as semi- or permanent tax-funded housing for the homeless and as traditional residential housing. 

Today’s designs also lend themselves to the luxury market. This is because many are either imbued with contemporary aesthetics or adapted to historic styles. The modularity of today’s prefab homes make them even more accessible for these three four demographics. Given that many can be constructed in a warehouse and quickly assembled on site, the options for application are endless. Some can even be unfolded on site electronically with the touch of a button. Modular prefab homes also often allow for later add-ons to the structure, a critical element for areas experiencing housing crises. As American houses become more multi-generational -- with parents moving into their kids' ADUs -- modular prefab homes offer yet another solution.

Why Modular Prefab Homes Work so Well for Home Offices

modular prefab adu home office

"'A lot of companies are allowing their employees from home from now on if they choose. So everybody is scrambling to find space to put their computer...People are growing tired of putting their laptop on their dining room table or their kitchen countertop.'” - Tim Vack, quoted by Dalvin Brown in his article "Americans are buying, building, converting backyard sheds into home offices" for USA Today

In recent years -- but especially during the COVID-19 pandemic -- both remote work and modular building have increased in popularity and necessity. Over the past nine months, searches for ADUs have increased -- as shown on Google Trends. This has been particularly true along the West Coast in California, Oregon and Washington. The search phrase “what is an ADU” has actually been a breakout term this year on Google. A breakout term is one that has increased in search volume over 5,000%. For those unfamiliar, ADUs -- the abbreviated name for accessory dwelling units -- are secondary structures built on a property already hosting a main house. Modular prefab homes function perfectly as ADUs because they are quickly and easily assembled. They are also ideal as ADUs because they can be outfitted with water and power and some are relatively affordable. They are also occasionally exempt from zoning and permitting restrictions and some do not require foundations. Interestingly, “modular building” and “construction loan” have also been breakout terms on Google over the past few months.

Dalvin Brown explains the need for modular prefab home offices in his recent article for USA Today. Quoting artist and homeowner Robin Salcido, Brown writes that “‘we’re really limited in other opportunities for leaving the house to get some work done.'" As such, Salcido and her family have realized that they "need more space" for remote work. Salcido actually ordered a prefab shed to assemble in her home’s backyard to use as a home office. The need for usable work space at home has become painfully obvious during the pandemic. Over the past ten months, school-aged children, spouses and roommates have all been forced to fight for WIFI access and private workspaces. Modular prefab structures -- often resembling boxes or pods equipped with windows and doors -- are ideal for backyard offices because they are “detached [and] mostly self-contained spaces [that] are more affordable and more practical than taking on a full-scale construction project.” We at Living Deep have long been proponents of the modular home building movement. We are so excited to see how prefab construction continues to address gaps in the industry.


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