finem respice

Prefab Phoenix

Submitted by ep on Tue, 03/03/2009 - 12:57
any color you want as long as its canary yellow or concrete brown

Since before the first versions appeared in the Sears catalog 1908, if you had quick and dirty housing needs, you resorted to prefabricated building. There was great appeal in their low cost and quick construction time, as well as their disposablity. Of course social drives like the Gold Rush and various military buildups had significant effects on the market for shelter you could move by train. Further, the sudden surge in shelter needs for assembling troops pushed a combined growth in trailer homes and prefabricated structures before and during World War II, and the military sold hundreds of thousands of galvanized Quonset huts as surplus in the postwar years. It’s hard to beat the ability to lift in and drop 720 square feet with a crane in two hours or less when you plan to arrive quickly and leave before too long. And it is hard to beat the price if someone drops a 250kg bomb on one.

After the war, as the Soviet Union began to demobilize, massive housing projects had to be thrown up quickly to meet the need for quick (and most of all cheap) shelter. Prefabricated housing was, again, the answer, and in the 1950s the Soviet Union became the most prolific of its advocates.

The focus on centralized, mass-scale industrial complexes governed by whichever five-year-plan was currently in effect boosted urban populations and housing requirements in many of the Soviet republics. The wealth of new jobs in prefabricated housing manufacture and mobile assembly was a nice bonus. A prefabricated assembly worker costs about half of what a more skilled housing construction worker would require- keeping all those former conscripts you had to relocate away from their original home to avoid ethnic concentrations and the risk of uprisings busy is important.

The 1954 Congress of Architects of the Soviet Union, finding that external “decorative manifestations” added unnecessarily to construction time and were, in any event, decadent indulgences not befitting a proud and humble citizenry, elected to do entirely without them. Large, unadorned plastic and concrete slabs would do perfectly well, thank you very much. The measure of success for such projects was constructed floor space in square meters divided by time of construction. Careful students of incentives will have guesses about the effects on the quality and safety of a twelve story building erected under such a regime.

The addition of a right to housing in the 1977 Soviet Constitution helped push demand for prefabricated constructions up through most of the 1980s, though, interestingly, during this period the wait list for one’s constitutionally guaranteed 40 square meter apartment was often measured in years.

The United Kingdom, too, favored prefabricated constructions of all sorts, much of which still “graces” the landscape of the isles. This, certainly, is about as much on the topic as is safe to discuss in public fora.

Residential prefab quality in the United States was generally abysmal until the passage of the Manufactured Housing Construction and Safety Standards Act of 1974. Amusingly, prefabricated housing is considered personal property for tax purposes until assembled and attached to the ground, whereupon it converts itself, poof, to real estate. Readers may guess what impact this legal conversion historically had on factory warranties offered by the less scrupulous manufacturers.

While pure prefabricated housing has generally remained a fringe indulgence, elements of prefabricated housing, particularly in construction technique, persist in most modern construction in the United States. Astute readers of finem respice will recognize immediately the many overlaps thereof with McMansions of recent renown. Certainly, the advantages of rapid assembly, the minimization of skilled labor requirements and minimal customization contributed to the quick erection of many a housing tract and any number of flipped properties- a perfect fit for a wildly booming housing bubble. McDonalds recently set the record for time from the commencement of construction to operating business (just over 12 hours) with a prefabricated structure. The impact of these mass construction techniques on long-term property values and, for example, hurricane loss modeling may fail to elude the finem respice reader.

Despite all these drawbacks, readers will be delighted to learn that prefabricated housing has an entirely new and compelling role in the modern, subsidized and re-inflated housing market: “Healthier, happier homes that have a dramatically smaller ecological footprint than most new homes.”

All rejoice!

[Art Credit: Richard Nebesky "Detail of Facade of Prefabricated Housing Built in the 1960s Where Many Czechs Live in Cities," Photograph (Unknown Date), Unknown Source. From the artist's series on former Soviet satellite states.]

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