5 excellent ideas for prefabricated housing

The Museum of Modern Art's current show, Home Delivery: Prefabricating the Modern Dwelling (through October 20) surveys the history of prefab homes in the U.S. It shows old ideas that never caught on as well as the latest in prefab home technology. An outside portion of the exhibit contains five modern prefab houses that were built especially for the show.

The word "prefab" doesn't inspire warm, fuzzy feelings in most people. In fact, it may make you think of a trailer park. But architects think that prefabricated houses — houses that are at least partially assembled away from where they're built and whose parts can be mass-produced — have potential. Their optimism is for three main reasons:

  • 1) Mass-producing parts for homes as if they were cars is more efficient than building them on-site, which makes them more environmentally friendly.
  • 2) Prefab houses tend to be smaller than most suburban dwellings, so use less energy once they're built.
  • 3) Architects think prefab houses are just plain fun — the concept lets them design modern, minimalist spaces that could be built easily for people all over the world.

Click Continue to read about some of the coolest elements from the MoMA exhibit— from walls made of bottles to one of the most compact but livable houses around.

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5. More portable than a trailer: the inflatable home.
Sure, you can move trailer homes and RVs around. But they're so heavy! In 1965, years before everything had to have the word "pod" attached to it (see the nap pod, paint pod, coffee pod and BatPod), the Archigram architecture group designed the Living Pod as the ultimate portable home. Not only is the house inflatable, but it's filled with inflatable furniture. It stands on cute little metal legs, can be packed up easily and probably will be useful for your next trip to the moon.


4. Make your home from bottles.
More than 40 years after the Heineken bottle brick failed to catch on, Kengo Kuma designed the Water Block House, a construction made from interlocking biodegradable polymer bottles that can be filled with water. This wall was commissioned by MoMA for the exhibit — the bricks haven't been used to make a real house — but they have the advantage of being lightweight and easy to transport (like the Living Pod) when empty. Water is one of the best insulators around, and it helps keep walls stable, so the bottles should be filled once they reach the building site. While we certainly wouldn't want to live in a house made from these bottles, it's hard to deny that the wall is cool-looking. And with fuel costs rising, transporting light bricks instead of heavy ones starts seeming like a smart idea.


3. Live in a very, very small space.
The Micro Compact Home (M-CH) is 76 square feet yet can house two people and contains a dining-room table that seats five comfortably. Sure, living in it would be a kind of like being a stowaway in a train's sleeper car every day, but these little houses show that with a little ingenuity, a lot can be made from a very small footprint. The M-CH contains two flat-screen TVs, a bathroom with shower, a kitchen, and even a closet. It's set up with solar panels and a pole for a small wind turbine — the two should provide enough power for the house to operate off of the grid since its energy needs are so small. It'll do more than just save electricity, however: Since the house is so small it discourages its owners for accumulating more and more stuff. The M-CH is more than just a concept and museum exhibit — German students have actually spent several months living in them, and they're available for purchase for around $38,700 here.

2. Forget "external fasteners" (i.e. nails).
When the government tried to provide low-cost, quickly-assembled housing for victims of Hurricane Katrina, things didn't turn out so well. Things might have been different if, instead of providing hastily constructed formaldehyde-filled trailers, FEMA had provided hastily constructed prefab houses like this "digitally constructed" house designed by a professor and students at the MIT School of Architecture. The parts for this house can all be created with a a portable laser cutter like pieces of a puzzle and and assembled in jigsaw-puzzle fashion using only a rubber mallet — no nails required. Even though the house can be built quickly and with very few materials, it still reflects New Orleans's architectural heritage better than any RV.

flatform.jpgOf course, eschewing nails and glue is not a new strategy — just think of an antique chest of drawers or Lincoln Logs. But the prefab exhibit shows that designers are being creative with the concept. Take this Flatform wall, commissioned by MoMA for the exhibit. It's a wall stamped from standard-sized sheets of stainless steel. Its flat components are "cut, scored and folded to assemble structures without external fasteners." Modern computer modeling is letting us leave nails behind not just for materials like carefully cut wood but for mass-produced commodities like metal sheets.

1. Make your walls out of cellophane (and fill them with solar panels).
The star of this show is Kieran Timberlake Associates’ four-story Cellophane House. Running with scissors would be a definite no-no in this house because, true to it's name, the two side walls of the building are made from "next generation smart-wrap film." Why do the architects do this? Because they can. Also, the material is lighter, more portable and flexible than industrial glass. The walls are seamless (literally) and transparent so that you can really see the frame of the house beneath them. They're also filled with small solar panels that help to power the building. Learn more about the ideas behind the Cellophane House here.