Book Review: Pre-Fab Living

Avi Friedman's latest book provides a timely overview of current pre-fabrication technologies through a collection of projects that explores current design trends and construction approaches.

Y: Cube Mitcham is the first of several developments produced for the YMCA in south London, UK. Designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the modular units provide affordable starter homes for young people unable to afford a conventional house. Photo courtesy Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

Book by Avi Friedman (Thames & Hudson, 2021)

Pre-Fab Living provides a timely overview of current pre-fabrication technologies through a collection of projects that explores current design trends and construction approaches. Authored by Avi Friedman, who teaches architecture at McGill and has been a long-time advocate for sustainable and affordable housing, the book includes 40 small to mid-rise projects from around the globe. They’re grouped by themes including Innovative Communities, Apartment Buildings, and Net-zero Homes, presenting pre-fabrication as an evolving and experimental set of processes with ample space for imagination, growth and cross-pollination.

Pre-fab is of particular interest a year into a pandemic that has brought environmental and housing inequities to the forefront. Alongside the systemic failures of inadequate public housing, stay-at-home orders have exposed frustrations with low- and mid-cost private homes. An architectural shift may be in the works: action plans for affordable housing have been announced at multiple levels of government, which pre-fab is well-positioned to address. Rapid-response modular projects are being completed in cities like Toronto, and the AEC industries are expanding their abilities to design, produce and deliver various combinations of affordable, rapid, and environmentally sustainable housing. Friedman’s book provides an opportunity to reflect on the values, challenges, and potentials of these new homes.

Heijmans ONE, designed by MoodBuilders, helps meet Amsterdam’s need for affordable rental housing. The two-storey, single-person homes can be fully installed in a single day, and are easily moved. This allows them to temporarily occupy prime urban sites awaiting development. Photo courtesy Moodbuilders

Having a right to a home is not only a question of responding to the insufficient or sub-par housing in which vulnerable people have been unable to effectively self-isolate. The pandemic has shown that for those who have limited agency in their choice of a suitable dwelling, home can feel like a trap. Housing should consider the physical and emotional health and dignity of inhabitants, and support a meaningful and contextual existence for people of diverse backgrounds and situations. While a first step to improved housing for the most vulnerable populations is public policy and funding, trends in pre-fab (and its sub-type, modular construction) are opening up the possibility of producing quality outcomes at a range of price points.

The tension between quality and affordability is at pre-fabrication’s core. As Friedman details, pre-fab holds the promise that the efficiencies of technology and industrialization will continue to reduce labour, time and material costs. Optimistically, this would lead to greater accessibility of high-quality housing. In reality, the optimization of production processes to achieve low-cost housing can result in repetition, monotony, and quality reductions. In larger cities like Toronto, housing stock is already polarized between customized, high-cost, single-family detached homes and lower-cost repetitive, standardized housing structures and communities. Can government financing and pilot projects help develop pre-fab technologies to provide quality public housing, as well as opportunities for greater variety in low- and mid-range private homes?

Pre-fabrication is based on producing pre-made factory homes, or components of differing scales that are later assembled. This range of components is usually deployed in new builds, but can also be used in additions and retrofits. With enough designers, suppliers and market share, pre-fab could eventually sustain a high level of personalization and occupant agency—delivering the kind of customization that we have come to expect in other aspects of life, such as fashion—while still resulting in affordable, environmentally efficient and rapidly built homes.

As in other aspects of life, marginalized groups (and even members of the thinning middle class) may find that control over one’s space through personalization of its interiors and exteriors increases a sense of ownership, pride and desire to better care for a place long term. On an interpersonal level, greater diversity makes for more vibrant communities.

Designed by architectural firm Assistant, the House of 33 Years in Nara, Japan, was built for an elderly couple who decided to move after spending 33 years in their previous home. Photo © Shinkenchiku Sha

This idea of variety and an ability to curate one’s own narrative is demonstrated in the House of 33 Years, a home by architectural studio Assistant that features in Pre-Fab Living’s Japanese Homes section. It is built from components manufactured in three different cities, developed by separate research, arts and trades groups. The playful and informal assembled whole accommodates the clients’ past personal narratives and future aging processes. Some of these concerns are echoed in Camden PassivHaus in London, UK, by Bere Architects. Its elegantly detailed façade of wood screens, along with an elongated threshold, expands the interior by created sheltered outdoor spaces. The home’s Passivhaus certification and careful composition show a deep consideration for environmental responsibility and the quality of interior spaces and natural light. Yet this particular home makes limited use of design efficiencies and standardization: it is a one-off, and its use of pre-fabrication is limited to heavily insulated framing.

A number of the book’s examples tend towards the two ends of the existing housing spectrum: highly customized, high-cost constructions, aimed at a middle- to upper-class clientele, or low-customization, low-cost structures. Fortunately, some examples of low-cost, yet quite customized examples are also included, such as the Happy Cheap House in Sweden, by Tommy Carlsson Arkitektur.

Another concern raised by the pandemic is the expandability and adjustability of spaces beyond traditional room boundaries. This is particularly apparent when small homes are challenged to support multiple functions, such as work-from-home and learn-from-home needs. This can be a tricky problem in pre-fabrication, where modules are restricted in size due to transport or lifting requirements. Nonetheless, several projects in the book explore planning that flows across and between modules in ingenious ways. The Stack in New York by Gluck+, for example, demonstrates a diversity in unit plans that accounts for various family compositions.

A swinging library wall is one of several moveable elements that allow Yuko Shibata Office’s Switch project in Tokyo, Japan, to flip between design studio and apartment functions. Photo by Ryohei Hamada

Pre-fab may also offer environmentally conscious options for adding to existing structures. The dramatic Rucksack House in Germany by Stefan Eberstadt is affixed to the face of an apartment building and suspended above street level. Other projects, like the Switch renovation, in Tokyo, by Yuko Shibata Office, show strategies for the flexible programming of home and office spaces within a unit. The book also captures changes in inhabitation over time, by including projects such as Y: Cube Mitcham, in London, UK, by Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners that provides temporary low-income residences while inhabitants kick-start their futures; and Heijmans ONE in Amsterdam, by Moodbuilders, a set of row houses that temporarily inhabit available open space in a neighbourhood under development.

Designed by David Studio, Grow Community’s wood-clad, solar-powered houses make the Bainbridge Island, Washington development a net-positive neighbourhood that melds indoor and outdoor living. Photo David Studio Architecture & Design

These last examples reflect another theme that weaves through the book: changes in the standard presumptions of how families and communities inhabit private, semi-private and shared spaces. The ecologically conscious Grow Community (Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA, by Davis Studio) consists of both single-family and multi-family residences whose inhabitants share facilities and resources such as gardens, park and play spaces, cars and bikes. Such examples are interesting jumping-off points for considering future approaches to diverse housing communities. Extended and multigenerational households may see upward spikes if pandemic-influenced changes to elder-care facilities do not inspire confidence. At the other end of the spectrum, public housing in its best iterations can also be viewed as creating spaces with qualities that bridge between households and communities. What can be safely shared to create new opportunities for interconnection?

Friedman’s book arrives on the 100-year anniversary of Le Corbusier’s Towards an Architecture. A century ago, Le Corbusier called for a change in architectural thinking and advocated for the adoption of industrial aesthetics, technologies and a focus on function. Pre-fab Living’s collection of homes produced (at least in part) in industrial factories raises questions as to the next generations of homes. Is it possible for more homes, for more people, to exist lightly and ecologically on their sites, to reflect increased diversity and mobility, and to sustain adaptation over the course of a day or life? Pre-fab has long offered this promise: perhaps, post-pandemic, it will finally come of age.

Maya Orzechowska is a Toronto-based intern architect. Her research work on homes gives centrality to issues of vulnerability, emotional health, empathy and resource sharing.