Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Utopia's Not Just Around the Corner

Writing in a recent The New Republic, Sarah Williams Goldhagen reviews last year's exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art called Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling. According to MoMA's curatorial statement, the exhibition was a survey "of the historical and contemporary significance of factory-produced architecture." Philip Kennicott's August, 17, 2008, Washington Post review of the show said, "The MoMA exhibition maps the breadth of prefab thinking -- through photographs, architectural models and full-scale architectural installations." Goldhagen gushes that the show, "excelled in bringing to fascinating life the history of prefabrication from the mid-nineteenth century to the present." Well and good; the exhibit did sound interesting.

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.

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.
Ms Goldhagen's syllogism is flawed on a number of levels:
  1. 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:

    source: PrefabUpdate

    Conversely, where Goldhagen sees litter, most see charm.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 rooms
    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.
    Yes, 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.
Conclusion: I'm sorry I missed the MoMA exhibit. But one can't miss the fact that Goldhagen and other starry-eyed lefty dreamers, "don't understand the human game."


Kurt said...

Maybe I'm weird. Personally, I like what I've learned about numerous types of prefabricated homes. There are many appealing options out there.

I don't currently own a prefab home, nor do I see myself owning one anytime in the near future. The main reasons for that have to do with zoning restrictions and resale potential. I might choose to live in a prefab home if I lived in a rural location, but in my city, most of the desirable and established neighborhoods don't contain prefab structures, nor would it be feasible to put them there, for the most part.

OBloodyHell said...

> create enforceable national standards

Actually, enforceable regional standards wouldn't be A Bad Thing, and would pave the way for a certain element of factory-based designs. I think that a design targeting homes in Florida, with no basements, hurricane issues, and a high water table, would have no place in Iowa, with no hurricanes, the occasional tornado, and severely cold winters.

As far as that resulting in identical boxes:

1) Have you actually been through a modern development shortly after completion? Most have only a couple design variations, with some mirroring and/or gew-gaws added to make them look a bit different. It typically takes 10-15 years before the similarity of house designs gets hidden by actual post-construction variations (i.e., "add-ons") and substantial differences in horticultural development to hide the fact that there are well under a dozen house designs in most developments.

2) Just building pre-manufactured wall segments alone would save millions on housing, and could have no overly visible effect on housing layout -- 5 or 10 basic designs of an 8-ft exterior wall section (with different window types -- including no window) could be produced at factories and shipped to home sites for tying into the foundation and interlocked to produce the walls of a quite rigid structure. Add some similar 4' and 2' sections, exterior corner sections (presumably 2' each direction) interior sections with similar dynamics and a standard mechanism for locking them into place with exterior walls, and a house would be put together like a set of building blocks almost. Add exterior sheathing to obscure the join patterns and the houses could actually look much more different in a development than they do now.

There are problems to be solved in the above, but, like most of such, it's more a matter of getting the patchwork and piecemeal codes to allow for it -- codes that vary from fifty feet on one side of the city limits to fifty feet onto the other side in a different city, or into the county.

Homes could, and should, be put together like kitchen cabinets are now -- select the style, spacing, and so on, and much of the the actual work is done at a factory on an assembly line, and the resultant pieces are assembled by a moderately skilled and experienced professional. You don't need a highly skilled carpenter just to produce a very nice, elegant, and well-designed kitchen any more.

Standardizing codes for different regions and conditions would go a long way towards encouraging such developments. There should be only about 50-100 required variants in requirements, with a great deal of overlap (interior walls don't need to vary much around the planet, much less from state to state -- perhaps Cali with earthquake zones, but that can be addressed by special "safe pockets" being defined, for example, with extra reinforcing in the walls). Likewise, the Gulf Coast areas need to be able to handle hurricanes, so there needs to be more reinforcing to tie the roof down and hold the exterior walls together, but that could be addressed with the exterior sheathing, for example, being stronger and thicker, and including cabling which ties the roof all the way down to the foundation. I'm guessing, there, but it's certainly a resolvable problem.

And you can damned sure bet that, for something like that, there won't be a situation like what happened with Hurricane Andrew, with walls tearing off because of sloppy contracting which had siding nails not even secured into their associated 2x4 wall framing, which allowed water to get inside the water barriers in the walls and soak into them until they turned into wet heavy cardboard -- a factory turning out wall segments would do so much more consistently and readily, and require far fewer workers to do the job much better, and with far better and more consistent inspection for errors.

On the whole, we build houses ass-backwards in this country compared to the way we could do so.


Kurt said...

As far as what you're suggesting, OBH, there are already a whole group of prefabricated homes known as "panelized homes" that are basically constructed as you describe. There are many websites with designs and plans and sales data. They range from the bland and unattractive to very appealing and stylish. Part of what I was thinking about when I was talking about prefabricated homes above was the time I spent a few years ago looking at the many plans and designs that exist for panelized home construction.

Check here, for instance:

In addition to that, there are other kinds of kit houses and modular structures that can be nice. Consider the Sunset (Magazine) Breezehouse, for instance:

OBloodyHell said...

I know some aspects of it exist, but I will lay odds that, unless you are a real do-it-yourselfer, you aren't going to be able to do much of this, since it will be almost impossible to find a contractor willing/able to do it. And that's why it's not widespread -- it's a matter of proper use of labor, "opportunity costs", and the principle of Comparative Advantage.

And part of that reason for it not being easy to find a contractor to do such is because of the endless fights you're likely to have with code officials who are dead set on not allowing such things to exist.

That's by and large a function of CW Unions and their wholly-owned subsidiaries, the County Governments.

OBloodyHell said...

And the real fact of the matter is, if you don't see any actual developments going up using these exclusively -- and you don't -- then they defacto aren't a significant portion of the market.