But most of Goldhagen's piece is a polemic praising prefab housing as providing affordable and "environmental[ly] sustainabil[e]" dwellings that "would more fully and attractively accommodate the ways people currently live." And Goldhagen can't understand why the marketplace hasn't already demanded prefab:
Most observers would agree that, compared with the typical automobile, the typical developer site-built (also referred to, with uncanny aptness, as stick-built) house is remarkably retrograde in terms of its design and its construction process, during which a shocking amount of labor and material resources is unnecessarily expended. Compare the construction of the typical house with that of the typical car. Even stock house designs must be drawn and re-drawn to accord with highly variable local building and zoning codes. Foundations must be dug. Wooden frames are custom-built and hand-built. Roofers roof, plumbers run pipes, electricians thread wires and install fixtures, carpenters install doors and windows, contractors pack in fireproofing and insulation behind the sheetrock they tack up, painters paint, landscapers clean up, grade, pave and plant. Over many months, this parade of tradespeople through the typical stick-built house is coordinated, competently or otherwise, by the notorious figure known as the general contractor, who typically earns his fee as a percentage of the cost of construction.Ms Goldhagen's syllogism is flawed on a number of levels:
Technologically, there is no reason why houses, like cars, cannot be mass-produced, and in other countries they are constructed that way. Prefabricated, mass-produced homes, like mass-produced cars, offer myriad advantages. Fewer resources, material and labor, are wasted. Weather does not dictate construction schedules. Higher and consistent quality is more easily and reliably achieved, because the product is fabricated in the controlled setting of a manufacturing plant, with all the attendant cost advantages. The Swedish residential building industry has long been dominated by prefabricated construction: nationally uniform building systems made possible an abundance of companies manufacturing high quality kit and modular homes and prefabricated housing components. By the 1980s, prefabrication was used in 85 percent of new residential construction. (Not surprisingly, Sweden-based Ikea offers its own prefabricated house.)
In the United States, prefabrication comprises a very small percentage of new housing construction. If the construction and financial industries learn only one thing from the current crisis, it should be that American consumers desperately want and need affordable housing, and would flock toward better built, lower-cost alternatives to what the market currently offers. The technology to build prefabricated housing exists. At every level of the industry, from low to high end, cost savings would be enormous. Fewer resources would go to waste, which would be better for the environment. If one were to ask an economist specializing in residential housing to devise from scratch a system for designing, manufacturing, and distributing quality new housing, it is unlikely that anyone would ever concoct, much less advocate the adoption of, the current system. . .
Why do we continue to settle for residential litter in ever-more-degrading landscapes? That is the question these exhibitions fail to address. But of course it is not an architectural question. In social policies, better ideas by savvier architects will change little. For quality affordable mass-produced housing to be built, we need to create different conditions for a mass market. A new legislative structure must clear away the obstacles presented by non-standard, municipally controlled building codes and create enforceable national standards for prefab-friendly, environmentally responsible manufacturing and construction practices. Incentives must be offered so that the entrenched and intransigent construction industry, which has made plenty of money on its poorly conceived, shoddily built, environmentally toxic houses, will re-configure itself. If the necessary legislation were passed and new market incentives put in place, and the designers and manufacturers of prefabricated homes made all the real innovations in quality and reduction of price that the automobile industry has made since the Model T, who would walk away from a better designed and better built home for less money? Given the current housing crisis, and the new administration's commitment to environmental responsibility and progressive social policies, it seems reasonable if not exactly realistic to hope that some of tomorrow's homebuyers might be offered the opportunity to purchase products that are worth their price.
- Given free choice, Americans don't want to live in ugly homes. And, excepting some high-end and demonstration projects, most current prefabs aren't pretty. Has Goldhagen ever seen Ikea's ugly homes and awful prefab neighborhoods Here's an Ikea development outside of Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK:
Conversely, where Goldhagen sees litter, most see charm.
- Goldhagen implicitly assumes that reductions in building costs will lead to cheaper homes. But house prices--at least until the collapse of the housing market last year--are not, for the most part, a function of construction costs. That would presuppose that people buy only new construction. In fact, only 10 percent of house sales are of new homes (in 2007 in the U.S., 5,652,000 existing homes were sold, compared to 776,000 new homes, about 12 percent of total sales). Obviously, buyers often prefer older homes, and pay a premium for them. Housing prices are mostly a function of demand, meaning that reduced construction costs might not significantly lower the price of homes.
- Goldhagen demonizes local control of housing quality:
Several hulking obstacles block our path to a more rational system of house construction. Building codes, which are municipally controlled, vary enormously, and not just from state to state but also from town to neighboring town. Currently, this system makes it nearly impossible for builders to employ standardization on a large enough scale for manufacturers of prefab houses to recoup their initial investment in prototypes. Ditto zoning codes.Do we really want to nationalize codes and zoning, turning one of the most traditional aspects of local government to Federal law? Given comprehensive state police powers over real property, national building codes would be at the extreme edge of the elastic interstate commerce clause, Art. I, Sec. 8, cl. 3).
But though probably lawful, Federalizing state regulation is an odd hobby-horse for liberals. Reversing a Bush Administration decision, President Obama recently directed the EPA to "reevaluate" whether to grant California a waiver to set higher fuel economy requirements for cars sold in California. That would mean the left favors national standards for immovable houses, but state-by-state regulation for automobiles that can, and do, move from state to state. And lefties on the Congressional Oversight Panel recently recommended adding a layer of state oversight to Federal banking regulation. I get the impression that Goldhagen and other progressives switch between Federal and state oversight depending on which they think would be more liberal.
- More generally, Goldhagen's complaint is that of a typical socialist yearning for utopia. As the Washington Post's Kennicott said:
As the MoMA exhibit makes painfully clear, the prefab utopia has two faces: a social fantasy (perhaps dystopian) of stuffing proletarians into ready-made boxes, and an aesthetic dream of offering the best architectural thinking to the widest possible audience. The former fantasy has generally advanced the furthest.Contrary to this view, paradise will not be summoned when wise paternalists overrule the peoples' choices with their Olympian judgments. Americans do not want to live in identical "little boxes made of ticky tacky," as Malvina Reynolds understood. And liberals like Goldhagen should know that such views were best rebutted by another folk singer, Pete Seeger--ironically, another socialist. Just read the lyrics to his song My Father's Mansions:
My Father's mansions have many roomsYes, I know Seeger's song was a metaphor. But his meaning is clear enough: Aesthetics, not conspiracies among local government and builders, is the limit on prefab housing construction in America.
Have room for all his children
As long as we do share his love
And see that all are free. . .
And dwellers in each room should have
The right to choose their own design
And color schemes to suit their own
Though differing from mine
Yes and each door has its own design
To suit the owners state of mind
And those who'd want them all the same
Don't understand the human game.