The Prefab Promise

Prefab is hot these days. Promises of lower cost, higher sustainability, better quality and faster construction make it worth exploring for the prospective home builder. Can prefab deliver on these promises for you?

We had high hopes for prefab when we started thinking about home building. Article after article in Dwell, which seems to dedicate at least a quarter of each issue to prefab these days, and the buzz online had us excited that we could build a modern house quickly for less than the cost of a traditional stick-built house. We saw some promising stuff from Rocio Romero in St. Louis not too far away.

Sustainability was also a big selling point that had us looking to prefab. Assembly-line production in a factory leads to less waste. Also, the factory environment can permit tighter tolerances for a more efficient house. Prefab is making home building better no question.

But, what about cost? Getting all Henry Ford on home building should make it an order of magnitude cheaper than custom building, right? Not exactly. A prefab home still needs a significant amount of work to assemble, and there are still significant costs for site work and foundations. The customer still has to be careful to avoid situations like this. Also, in real estate, cost is relative. A half-million dollars in San Francisco will get you a modest home, but in Northwest Arkansas that same budget will buy a very nice, large home in a good neighborhood.

The nice folks at Zillow make a neat widget that illustrates my point in terms of price per square foot.

[Rogers Real Estate Statistics](
The cheapest prefab company that actually lists a price per square foot is [Ma Modular]( "Ma Modular Homes"), and their starting price is $140/sqft. That sounds like a bargain to a Californian, but it’s on the high side for us in Arkansas. I think this cost of living difference limits prefab to larger more expensive markets. Most of the prefab homes available out there are priced for the more expensive markets which is ok, they’re still providing value and changing the housing industry, but it has its limits. So, what’s next for prefab? I think there’s a huge opportunity to localize prefab. Architects and builders can partner with each other to offer a portfolio of designs suited to the market and ready to be built using prefab techniques. Changing the focus to be more local has potential benefits in sustainability too through the use of local materials. The challenge would be having enough local demand to stay afloat. To guard against that, builders could find ways to apply prefab techniques to all of the homes they build. The cost concerns coupled with the limitations of starting with an established design pushed us away from prefab and towards working with an architect on an original design. Can prefab deliver on its promises for you? It depends on where you live.
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