Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Our "Prefab" House

As a result of the severe housing shortage caused by Hurricane Katrina, some entrepreneurs are looking to alternative building methods to solve the problem.

If one of these new technologies can prove itself, producing houses that look like regular houses but are faster to build and cost-competitive, it could remake the industry. And if that happened, south Louisiana--including Baton Rouge--would become Ground Zero for the future of home building.

Enter "systems building," a blanket term that describes a number of technologies for mass-producing large parts of houses in a factory. On-site, the house is then assembled more than built. But the end result is a regular house, not a dressed-up doublewide.

"You can produce high quality in a factory environment," says Rodney Cobi, whose firm, Center for Landscape Interpretation, has been working to bring systems building to Louisiana for years.

Because systems-built houses favor framing in fiberglass, steel or concrete, they are also more resistant to wind and mold, not to mention fire and termites.

Where less-traditional home building typically falls short, though, is price. Non-wood homes typically sell at 10% to 15% higher than stick-built, says LED's Director of Advanced Materials Jim Landry. But couple increased demand for wood with stricter building codes in high-risk areas, and wood may lose its price advantage.

While these new methods may well be beneficial, a lot of salemanship will have to take place in order for potential homeowners buy into the prefab idea.

Just recently CNU members Andres Duany, Susan Henderson, Eric Moser, Steve Mouzon, Matt Lambert, and Diane Dorney designed and built a prototype Katrina Cottage II in Chalmette and invited the public to see it in person. The same was true for the original Katrina Cottage designed by New York City architect Marianne Cusato and displayed in Orlando and Biloxi. When viewed by homeowners in person, the homes were quite well received.

If, on the other hand, prefab developers rely on periodical articles and glossy flyers, they shouldn't expect much interest from the people who really count; the buyer.

However, one advantage of the prefab home is that 90%+ of the labor force required to build one is that it is not tied to the local labor market.

Also, because modular housing be built outside the area, it can be insulated from local cost pressures cost on materials and labor.
But I have one warning about this method. Because homes are usually designed and built by persons familiar with the local traditions and climate, site-built homes are typically better suited for their context and adaptation to the climate.

For prefab housing to work on the Gulf Coast, developers need to incorporate local architects and builders in the design process. Otherwise they might as well sell mud-buggies in Arizona.

9 comments:

Seymour D. Fair said...

kinch:

FYI: Over the past few days a two story prefab house was put in on Oak Street between Fern and Burdette . . .

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Mark said...

I don't have an email for you, so I will drop this note here. I've urged the dozen or so NOLA bloggers I have emails for to go back to my old post (and yours and Venustas et Veritas) and consider writing about Katrina cottages. The statistics I see on Wet Bank Guide show a tremendous interest. Here's my entry pages. I'm not sure of sitemeter's timeline, but given my daily counts, I'm presuming this is just yesterday's.

56 http://wetbankguide.blogspot.com/
26 http://wetbankguide.blogspot.com/2006/02/katrina-cottages.html

I think its possible to create a groundswell of support for something like this to replace FEMA trailers.

As an Capitol Hill veteran, I think somebody needs to drag a Katrina Cottage and a FEMA Trailer up to Capitol Hill and park them there for a couple of days, then drag the Congresscritters and their staffs out to see them, and to understand that they are cost competitive, and that a Katrina cottage would hold up better to a repeat storm.

They also need to understand that people will be living in these temporary quarters for a year or more and the rate things are moving.

Thanks again to you (and the author of V et V) for calling these out.

markfolseATrocketmailDOTcom

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jhausch said...

Prefab - "Fab" or not - always has a hard time with traction. I like the new post-modern attempts like the one in your post, but traditional neighborhoods have trouble with them.

I think incremental success with prefab comes from big builders utilizing some mass-production methods - aka panelization, SIPs, etc. They will creep into the market without most of the population knowing that they are getting something that was (in-part) prefabbed.

I agree with your take on involving "local knowledge", but we'll see what happens. If you're lucky, you'll get a design that cosmetically fits the area. It would be a miracle for the design to take full advantage of an area at many levels. Heck, you can't convince people to properly site/position a house on a lot - small steps, eh?