An Introduction to Prefab Homes & Buildings

Early prefabricated home

Prefabricated steel buildings have a long and diverse history that includes input from top architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius. Moreover, modern technology has brought prefab homes to the forefront in today’s architecture.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, homes constructed in separate sections were unheard of and had never been done before. However, as modern machines became more refined, they were able to create detailed craftsmanship and homes were a product of this manufacturing capability.

In 1833, a home called the balloon frame was built in a separate location from the final building site in Chicago. The home was moved by rail car or truck and could be erected by amateur laborers.

The Manning Portable Cottage was the first significant prefabricated house created. It was developed in England and was meant help the poor housing situation in Australia. The project was considered a success by 1837 and the company expanded to include several designs. Later, England used the new housing design to improve their colonial interests all over the world.

The turn of the 20th century saw a shift in prefabricated homes when Sears & Roebuck entered the market. The company was known for sending catalogs to every residence selling everything from clothes to automobiles and then it added houses.

Sears prefab home 1913

Sears & Roebuck began selling prefab homes in 1908 and discontinued the line in 1940. In between those years, the company sold prefabricated homes in a large variety of sizes and designs. Consumers could purchase an affordable vacation cottage, or a multi-family residence. Once the home was ordered, it was sent to the consumer and set up. The company offered their customers simple family homes along with enormous mansions and they were easy to order through the catalog.

In 1911, famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright began designing prefabricated homes. He created a method of building the homes in separate pieces at a factory and shipped each piece to the build site for construction. This process made homes affordable with the reduction of labor expenses. Wright’s homes were unique to his style of design and were very different from the assembly production of homes created by Sears & Roebuck.

Walter Gropius, a famous German architect, decided to create prefab homes as well after he became concerned about the housing shortage in Germany at the end of the war. His homes were styled in a similar design to Art-Deco and were very modern. Gropius’ prefabricated homes inspired the design style of prefab houses for many years along with the entire architecture world.

When the Great Depression began around 1929, Americans became focused on locating affordable homes causing pre fab homes to grow in popularity. Furthermore, the styles of prefabricated homes began to change with new materials entering the market. Products such as glass were added into the Keck Crystal home, and the Stran-Steel homes included steel and iron into their designs.

Metal homes were easy to spot during this time, and the metal constructed Quonset hut was a highly selected option for its quick assembly during World War II. Unfortunately, this home is often responsible for the negative views regarding prefabricated homes.

Even though notable architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Marcel Breuer and Buckminster Fuller added their expertise to the market in the 1930s and 40s, once the war ended, people began shifting their residences back to classic home construction. Furthermore, middle class Americans saw an increase in their income and chose to invest in custom built homes.

One style of prefabricated home lasted to 1950, which was the Lustron house. The design of this home was comparable to the Stran-Steel homes, which were constructed during the 1930s with the use of metal plates. The homes were sold in several different styles, and the company built approximately 3,000 homes from 1947 to 1950. Unfortunately, Lustron closed its production factory in 1950.

After 1950, classic home construction changed to incorporate many of the building features used in pre fab assembly, which included modular construction. Beginning in 1950, prefabricated homes became associated with the undesirable home ownership option of mobile homes. However, prefab homes are constructed much the same way as a classic home and are considered a traditional residence according to financing options, appraisals and building specification. Mobile homes are rated as personal property and will generally depreciate in value.

Prefabricated homes are constructed onto steel beams and are then moved to the build site in completed sections. Upon arrival, the home is built into a residence. On the other hand, mobile homes are assembled onto wheels and are towed to a property site. Both types of homes can be built within mobile home parks, but prefabricated homes are often placed onto private land.

A prefabricated home will need the plumbing and electrical lines connected through the separate sections. Furthermore, the homes can be single, double, or triple-wide depending on the desires of the future homeowner.

Prefabricated steel frame homes have always offered consumers current technology and prefab houses today are no exception. Green living has become a focus for today’s homes and is constructed to provide a higher level of energy efficiency for homeowners. Furthermore, the homes expel less waste while in the construction stage.

Prefabricated homes are currently seeing a renewal with architects and designers changing the homes to fit into today’s modern styles. For example, prefab homes are beginning to offer buyers individual styling similar to classically constructed residences. New technology is able to record the homebuyers list of designs into a laser cutting machine, which will create the pieces in a way that is easy for consumers to build.

Companies such as IKEA and Bensonwood Homes have entered into the prefabricated home market with several designs. These small 600 to 800 square foot homes are powered by geothermal, wind or solar resources providing not only a green residence from their small size, but also in their source of power.

New prefabricated buildings are available for construction in multiple materials, design choices and price points highlighting the history behind this affordable form of housing.

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Author: Conrad Mackie