Are Prefabricated Homes a Good Fit for Vancouver?

Architect Heather Johnston makes a case for prefab—and weighs in on one common misconception.

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Prefabricated home design tends to be a slightly controversial topic in the world of architecture and interior design. Although this style of building residences and commercial structures has become more popular over the past 10 years or so, many designers, architects and clients have had a hard time hopping on board when building costs are often the same as a custom stick-build home.If prefabricated homes aren’t less expensive, then why is this style worth investing in? Is it actually worth it? Much of the design community seems to be divided on the issue, but for Heather Johnston of Place Architects in Vancouver, the crux of the problem is clear: in order for prefabricated design to achieve what it’s meant to achieve, there needs to be some restructuring in the construction industry.VB: What would you say are the main benefits of a prefab home?HJ: Done right, a prefab home can be greener, it can be less expensive (although we as an industry haven’t really figured out how to do this at the same level of quality as a custom home). However, the main benefit is that it is less hassle. The construction time is shorter, you spend less time on the site and there’s less guesswork and mid-construction changing involved.Overall, there is less that the clients have to decide. Custom home owners have to learn about everything during the process—types of doorknobs and hinges, you name it—most of which they will never need to know again. This cuts all of that out. You can also see what your home is going to look like early on. There are photos early in the design process of what your home will look like, which is extremely helpful.VB: Is it always less expensive to build a prefab residence?HJ: The price between a custom home and a prefab home is just about the same. There really is no dramatic difference in cost, at least in terms of how it works now. Money can be saved on design fees and time though, since construction is very tightly coordinated so the time is cut quite substantially. But in terms of price per square foot, a good prefab house will cost about the same as a custom-built home.The price is something that can be fixed within the housing industry. Really big developers are already using many prefab techniques in their homes/developments because it’s quick and it saves money. This is not a new idea, but it is something that is new to a design-oriented community, because the fact that it isn’t completely customizable sometimes implies a poor design.People are trying to find ways to make quality residential architecture at a price that more people can afford. Architects and designers need to work together to get closer to the construction crews and manufacturers to really make this a collaborative effort from the ground up. The way the construction industry works now, everything is separated into these silos, which makes collaboration for the best product at the best price difficult. It’s about carefully tuning design to the production process. Production and design need to team up.VB: What are the different types of prefab homes that are currently available?HJ: Modular prefab homes are factory built boxes that can be assembled in larger components as well—they can come together as much or as little as you choose. The foundation is built on site, and installation and finishing can take anywhere from a few days to a couple weeks, depending on how much was planned to be done on site.FlatPak and panelized kit homes are another model of prefab homes. These homes are broken down into panels, and most of the finished work is done. Transportation-wise, it’s much easier to ship out, and there’s also an added flexibility in design. Structural panels are the same idea, and can take about five to six months to complete. These panels are made out of durable, prefabricated elements that can be as finished as you want them to be.Prefabricated homes with a lot of customization are usually panelized homes. By working with individual panels rather than full units, there tends to be a bit more flexibility in the style and design.I personally tend to like the modular style better. I didn’t really like how you have to let the panels kind of sit on the site for a while. I feel like there are more ways with modular homes to get the cost, quality and efficiency improved.VB: What are some things that people should keep in mind when looking at building a prefab home?HJ: Well first off, cost. It’s going to be about the same as a custom home, no matter what people tell you. Make sure you’re getting a full quote, one that includes the shell, interiors, construction and installation. You have to know exactly what’s being included in the quote you’re getting.Next, you want to make sure you find a design that you like, and will make sense on your site. Make sure the people you’re working with understand your site conditions. If you have a hill you’re working with, you’re probably going to want to consider working with a structural panel style, so you don’t have to bring in a crane to install a modular home. If you have a flat bit of land, a modular home will work just fine. Lastly, choose a design option that will fit your lifestyle, and pay attention to the customization options.VB: I’ve read concerns that some suppliers use poor materials to cut costs. How can someone make sure the manufacturer they’re using for a prefab is legitimate?HJ: Know that cost is going to be your biggest determinate. If you find a supplier or manufacturer that offers homes at $150 per foot, well, that’s the quality that you’re going to get. If the pricing is similar to a custom home, the quality will be similar to a custom home. Ask what’s included in the quote, and ask to see examples. You can ask to go see one of their homes today, or even go on a walk through of their factory.Johnston’s firm has won awards for traditionally built custom homes and has recently designed and completed its first custom prefab home.

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