Cat-like, it would seem that pre-fab is inching closer to unlucky number 9. Michelle Kaufman, AIA, one of contemporary pre-fab’s industry leaders, laid off 17 employees and closed her Oakland office in May after constricted credit markets and shuttered component factories made her business model untenable. Christopher Hawthorne at the Los Angles Times has noted the symbolic import of this decline, which paints the Great Recession as the latest pre-fab killer in a history that runs over a century.
There are two questions to consider now: Was pre-fab ever really “here,” and is it really “gone”? It has certainly arrived in the popular imagination. The MoMA’s Home Delivery show has put pre-fab in the public consciousness in ways it hasn’t been in decades. Beyond that, I haven’t seen any suburban subdivisions full of KieranTimberlake-designed Cellophane Houses or anything remotely like it. Hawthorne lists a few firms that have had to stop work on pre-fab projects, but others are still carrying on, like the democratically market-ready Balance Associates Method Homes “Down to earth pre-fab.”
It could be considered sadly comforting that at least pre-fab is failing to flourish in familiar ways. If Mies or Corbusier showed up today, they would have no problem at all understanding why pre-fab still hadn’t taken off. The technology needed to make it mass-produced and affordable to all is still ahead of the current marketplace, and consumer taste is evolving, but not yet ready to put pre-fab in primetime. Couple these age-old issues with a credit market pendulum that has swung with frightening ferocity back to queasily paranoid conservatism, and you have the pre-fab’s current condition, rather similar to it’s previous condition.
Certainly, any time an industry leading-innovator has to shut their doors it’s disheartening, and the currently narrow gap between the technological sophistication needed to mainstream pre-fab and the cost the market can bear makes it hurt all the more. Hawthorne’s final twist of the knife hurts the most: “If architects couldn't capitalize on the boom years -- with their easy financing, overpriced traditional houses and cheerleading design press -- to move closer to mass production, you have to wonder if they will ever be able to.” Kaufman, KieranTimberlake, and others have made excellent cases for pre-fab as paragons of sustainable building, and I hope this becomes a longer-term argument for their widespread adoption than sloppy credit markets and an impressed design media.
(Pictured above, Kaufman's Sunset Breezehouse.)