Prefabricated houses, also known as modular or prefab homes, have been around since 1624, when the first wooden house was broken into pieces in England and shipped overseas to Cape Ann, Massachusettes, to be reconstructed on a different continent.
In 1908, Sears introduced its wildly popular "House by Mail", a prefabricated house they sold nearly 100,000 units of between 1908 and 1940. Even historic architect Frank Lloyd Wright was in on the action, setting up a factory in Wisconsin to produce many of his designs en masse for the American people.
The popular conception of prefab houses is one of virtual trailers, either shipped whole on the back of a truck to the lot they will live, or sent in modular pieces to be constructed on site. While it is indisputable that a large segment of the prefabrication market is at the lower cost end, the fastest growing sector is at the upper-end of the market. In some areas, an attempt has been made to differentiate between the two market segments by referring to the low-cost structures as manufactured housing and the more custom-built, high-end structures as prefab or panelized housing.
The growing movement of prefab housing is attracting more and more respected architects, turning out creative and practical designs that may be built at a slim fraction of the cost of traditional construction. A bottleneck has begun to appear at the manufacturing end of the equation, where many manufacturers are reluctant to become known as glorified mobile-home producers. This in turn causes architects to turn to manufacturers long distances from their target build location, increasing overall costs.
Prefab housing is also attracting great interest from environmental groups, because of its potential to easily incorporate green-friendly designs into a model that will reach millions of people. In England, the Summit House was erected in early February of 2005 in just over ten hours as a demonstration of the speed, affordability, and attractiveness of prefab housing. This three-story house received an excellent score on the EcoHomes rating, and is fully modular, allowing for a great deal of customization.
Ultimately it appears that the movement towards prefab housing will overcome its current difficulties and become a viable choice not only for low-income families, but also for more wealthy consumers interested in a designer house for a fraction of the cost.