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Johnston's firm has won awards for traditionally built custom homes
and has recently designed and completed its first custom prefab
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.
Above: The facade of a panelized prefab design by PLACE Architects, done in one of three models that the firm offers.
HJ: 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.
Above: Like the exterior, the interior of many prefab homes offers customizable options. Flooring, colors, hardware styles, etc. can all be taken into account when the home is ordered.
HJ: 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.
Above: Although this space in this model could be used for a garage, PLACE used it as a dining room for the owners of this home. The metal sliding doors and concrete floors add a fun, industrial twist.
HJ: 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.
Above: For many, prefab implies poor quality and design. However, if done right, it's clear that this doesn't have to be the case at all. The kitchen PLACE designed in this prefab residence would be at home in any modern, high end, custom-built home.
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.
Above: This shot is from the prefabricated showhouse by Office of Mobile Design. It was a modular prefab home, which means that it was built almost entirely in the factory by a manufacturer, then carried on a semi-truck to the lot where it was installed on its foundation.
HJ: 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.
Above: Many larger prefabricated homes are modular in style, such as the one above.
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.
Above: It's hard to believe that the entryway of this modular prefab home was made in a factory! With high quality work like this, you are going to be paying a comparable amount to a custom stick-built home. However, the ease of design and installation makes it more than worth it for many home owners.
HJ: 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.
Above: This prefab home in Truckee, California, is a perfect fit for a mountain vacation home. Although modern in style, it still pays tribute to a classic cabin style with its use of wood.