Housing: Prefab Housing Goes Fab

Kaufmann cites the use of eco-friendly materials as one of the more popular features of the Breezehouse and her other prefab houses. She designs with bamboo flooring, solar heating panels, nontoxic paints, recycled materials and energy-conserving tankless water heaters.

But the lighter impact that prefab houses have on the building site may bring a more significant environmental benefit.

"There's much more efficient use of materials [in prefab] than in site-built construction," said Sylvester. "Go by any construction site and you'll see enormous scrap wastes getting thrown into Dumpsters." Because the building parts are molded or cut in a controlled factory setting, there is less waste and less energy used.

And streamlining construction processes means prefab houses go up faster. Despite the fact that the initial costs of prefab houses are comparable to those of other houses (prices are usually in the neighborhood of $100 to $150 per square foot), there are considerable savings in construction time.

"Where you save money is in the installation," said Sandonato. While on-site construction time for custom homes is often up to a year, prefab homes may be installed in as little as a week, with fewer weather-related delays.

When these cost savings are added to the energy savings prefab homes reportedly realize, their costs become competitive with other housing options. But proponents agree prefab houses are still beyond the reach of most low-income or first-time home buyers.

"This is really an economy-of-scale question," said Sylvester. "This is a niche market."

Design Drives Demand

What's really driving the demand for these homes, said enthusiasts, is consumers' thirst for interesting design in all products, from martini glasses to mops.

"There's been an interest in design in general in the United States, maybe catching up with Europe," said Geoff Warner, principal architect at Alchemy Architects, designers of the weeHouse line of prefab houses. Prefab housing has been popular in Europe for decades.

Warner noted that media and advertising play a role in sparking interest in well-designed products. "It distinguishes Target from Wal-Mart. Target has design, and Wal-Mart doesn't," Warner said.

But proponents of prefab housing agree that the concept still has a way to go before it catches on throughout the United States. "There's still a widely held misconception that anything built in a factory is a trailer home," said Sylvester. "That's a stigma of prefab that we have to overcome."

But it won't take long, Sylvester said. "Factory-built housing can be extremely high quality and a good investment."

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