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What Ever Happened to Prefabricated Housing?

Those who tell us that ours is an age of unprecedented technological change making science fiction into reality never tire of talking about their cell phone — but somehow never seem to have anything to say about a great many other things that are fundamental to daily living.

Like housing.

It remains far and away the norm to build homes one at a time, in a process largely consisting of craftsmen (carpenters, etc.) transforming raw materials at best only slightly processed (like planks of wooded) into the elements from which they laboriously construct the structure.

It is an artisanal process — remote from the mechanized mass manufacturing of the Industrial Revolution, which in regard to much of home construction seems never to have happened.

A person might wonder if this has not been because, for some reason, this style of housing has “withstood the test of time” as clearly superior to any industrial alternatives.

As is often the case with those who speak pompously of the “test of time” they would be wrong to do so — not least because the provision of adequate amounts of affordable, quality, housing has so long been recognized as beyond that older method. Indeed, writing of the lacks of America’s “affluent society” in the 1950s John Kenneth Galbraith specifically noted housing as one area where the richest country in history, riding high on the post-war boom, was poor — and few would care to argue the point today. As any homebuyer is likely to learn we have the artisanal method’s drawbacks without the individuality, beauty, durability it offered at its best — living instead in generic boxes that are as obscenely high-maintenance as they are expensive.

Moreover, the reality is that practical industrialization of house-building — through the “prefabrication” of structures — is at this point a generations-old practice that has consistently proven superior from the standpoint of building time and cost, even without the great economies of scale (and general productivity improvements) that might be achieved were the production of such houses carried out on a really widespread basis. (They have also been known to have numerous advantages over conventionally-built homes in such important respects as structural strength and energy-efficiency.)

Given both the failure of the old way, and the existence of a proven solution to it, one can only wonder why prefabricated housing — about which it was once common to hear as the “wave of the future” — never became more than the marginal thing it is within today’s construction market. Those discussing the issue sometimes talk about consumers finding them off-putting because of poor “reputation” — but I must admit that this explanation has never struck me as really satisfying. People buy what they know about, and I am not sure so many are aware the product exists, let alone its having any reputation with the broad public. And where what they know about is concerned people buy what is made available to them within their price range — while it is clear that builders are not going out of their way to make prefabricated homes widely available. Instead, as anyone perusing the discussions of the pros and cons of such homes quickly finds that such homes, rather than being produced in large numbers for purchase like any other home, are something individuals must personally arrange to have constructed on land they buy, suffering through a great many expenses and hassles they would not have to suffer when purchasing an already existing, conventionally built home.

Of course, that raises the question of why the construction sector has not taken more interest. The most plausible answer seems to be that, contrary to what those besotted with words like “ENTREPRENEURSHIP!” and “INNOVATION!” tell us, the failure of prefab home-building to make much headway is yet another story of a disruptive technology being successfully warded off by established businesses making the most of their position to stick with their established practices.

Nevertheless, it is far from inconceivable that prefabricated housing may have the benefit of significant tailwinds in the coming years. The combination of shortages of skilled labor across the range of building trades (carpenters, framing crews, etc.), and the tougher situation faced by consumers, provides the construction business with more incentive to pursue cost-saving options — while there may be significant synergies between prefabricated housing and other new technologies. Certainly Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne speculated in their study The Future of Employment that the prefabrication of buildings may play an important role in the automation of construction by simplifying the on-site activity. Meanwhile the construction sector may be facing increasing disruption from another technology — the 3-D printer and its potential to “print” homes. Certainly that technology could prove a competitor to prefabrication — but it is also possible that by disrupting the industry it can also create openings for a greater use of prefabricated structures, especially if each technology proves to be more useful than the other in some tasks. If so then we may belatedly see this very important industry, which has left so few pleased with its delivery of the goods, finally join the modern world, and in the process take a long overdue step toward turning scarcity in this very important area of life into abundance.

Originally published at



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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy


Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.