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Architects on Prefab - Carlo Carbone

September 15, 2014


by Carlo Carbone
Université du Québec à Montréal Design School

Excerpted from Toward an open manufactured building industry: a historical perspective by Carlo Carbone

Modular building, manufactured housing and the moveable home all share the genetics of early twentieth-century Fordism. The advantages of climate-controlled building, standardization, waste reduction, labour efficiency and bulk material procurement all contributed to the development of the factory-made house. Advocated as a necessary shift in housing production to serve the rapid urbanization that accompanied industrialization, the mass production of houses in a factory echoed the mass production of other commodities.                                                                                                                                     

In his 1951 The Prefabrication of Houses, Burnham notes that in the turbulent era of early twentieth-century America, the encouraged growth of prefabricated building focused on the single-family dwelling. Though highly subsidized, factory production of houses did not achieve its potential to provide a lower-cost and higher-quality alternative to traditionally built housing at the time. The extremely competitive, low-cost, low-overhead and entrenched building culture reinforced on-site woodframe construction and relegated the factory-built house to a market share that stabilized at no more than one out of eight or ten dwellings produced.

The social demographic makeup of post-war America established the single-family home constructed on-site by a woodframe builder as the nucleus of North American housing and building culture. The manufactured housing industry could not compete with the prevalence of the on-site builder and—as noted by Giedion in Walter Gropius, Work and team work—the perceived customization offered by traditional home construction.                       

Today, the factory-produced house has evolved into a sustainable, resource-responsible and customizable option for housing but, as reported by the Canadian Manufactured Housing Institute in 2013, still only garners approximately 12% of total single-family dwelling output in Canada. Digital fabrication, automation, mass customization and lean construction are becoming typical in factories and can contribute to a renewed, durable and ecological building culture. Within the contemporary convergence of a renewed production process, an appetite for sustainable housing options and a demographic shift toward the multi-unit housing type, the manufactured housing industry can be an important player in establishing creative building and housing concepts to serve the market’s ever-evolving lifestyles and family structures.

Literature Review of Socio-Economic Trends Affecting Consumers and Housing Markets, published jointly by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Mount Allison University and the Urban Planning Institute in 2003, posed some important questions in relation to the sustainable future of housing, including the viability of the single-family dwelling as a sustainable form of urban growth. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s recent statistics similarly illustrate the downturn in demand for the single-family dwelling (see This pattern, although boosted by the political encouragement of compact developments, is also a reflection of Canada’s demographic and economic outlook that will continue to orient the entire construction industry in the years to come.

The manufactured building industry developed from the application of new technologies and the ongoing urbanization of cities. Demographic and economic changes caused by the industrial society pressured the government, which placed the burden directly on private industry to solve the housing crises that accompanied industrialization and urbanization. The nuclear-family home and its privatization led to the rapid suburbanization of North America.

Today, the evolution of the Canadian and North American demographic framework demands novel and sustainable dwelling strategies with multi-family housing becoming its focus. The “typical” single-family surburban home of yesterday is marginally adaptable to the needs of contemporary society.

There are a few historical examples of open-ended experiments that sought a larger framework for the customization of housing and the optimization of the building process that highlight the opportunity for the manufactured building industry to contribute to flexible and adaptable design. Timber Structures Inc.’s wartime MOBILCORE provides an example of an industrialized building component conceived to combine the strengths of on- and off-site construction.

As reported in the April 15, 1946 edition of Life magazine in “Wyatt will use all kinds of building to get his job done”, the 8 x 24 ft. (2.4 x 7.2 m) MOBILCORE included all fixtures and appliances. The module was divided into bath, mechanical room and kitchen. For US$2,700 (approximately 40% of a total house price of the era) one could purchase a unit, have it delivered on-site and build the house around it.

The necessary paradigm shift in prefabrication that seemed evident to Timber Structures Inc. seems to be permeating into the building industry today. The NOYO core proposed by Québec’s Mobilfab (see shares the strategic heritage of MOBILCORE and is being used as a modular core unit for higher-density developments. Like the approaches taken by modern architects Walter Gropius and N. John Habraken, the NOYO demonstrates a collaborative strategy for industrialized building.

Manufacturing complex “chunks”—a term used by Kieran and Timberlake in Refabricating Architecture to describe factory-produced, complex building components—within a suitable framework optimizes adaptability and flexibility over time. Combining the flexibility of woodframe construction and the factory-produced core could create a formidable, open industrialized building system for housing.

The construction industry—residential and commercial, on-site and factory-based—is recognizing that a major paradigm shift is necessary to increase both production and sustainability. The contemporary building culture expressed by the integrated design process and digital conceptualization is more conducive to factory fabrication than on-site production. Resource-optimized factory production is also accepted as a valid and superior alternative to complex and resource-intensive on-site building. Major drivers, including BIM (building information modelling), lean construction and environmental programs will continue to demand creativity, open collaboration and resource-responsible models for building. Harnessing the potential of factory-based construction hinges on a new creativity. The long-lasting comparison to automobile production must be shed in favour of open collaboration among on-site and factory builders to produce Canada’s housing.

Read Carlo’s full article “Toward an open manufactured building industry: a historical perspective” and others at his pre[FABRICA]tions blog