I’m an architect, and for many reasons—quality, availability, efficiency, sustainability and aesthetics—I think residential architecture should be produced more like the industrial design typically found on Core77. Most important, if houses were designed, manufactured and distributed more like products, good design would be far more affordable and many more people could build their dream home. In this article, I’d like to tell you what my company, Connect Homes, is doing to change how houses are designed and built. But since this website typically covers product design and not architecture, I want to start by answering questions that I would want to ask an architect if I were a product designer.
What is architecture’s problem with duplicability? All product design is manufactured to be duplicated—do architects think every house they design needs to be unique?
Architects are taught in school that architecture should be designed around the specifics of the client, site and program. Since no two clients or sites are the same, it follows that no two works of architecture should be the same. Although not explicitly stated, a mistrust of duplication is ingrained in architecture, which is a profession that likes to celebrate the unique.
The duplicability of products vs. the “uniqueness” of architecture. Left: photo of Ford Model T’s, ready to ship to dealers, 1908. Right: Daniel Libeskind’s 18.36.54 House, 2015. The architect used 18 planes, 36 lines and 54 points in the house’s creation. The house is shaped by the architect’s response to the site, the program and the client into an entirely custom solution.
But I think that architecture’s desire for the unique is, at least partly, subconscious rationalization for the limited means of production architects have access to: site-built construction. Probably most architects would LOVE to have their buildings duplicated all over the place, but the build process does not support this. Site-built construction, despite all its problems, remains the most effective way to manufacture at the scale of a building. But unless you are doing several copies of the same building at once on the same site, duplication is tricky. With its protracted schedule, architect/contractor separation of roles and competitive bid process, site-building promotes maximum flexibility—it is a process that can design and build anything. But this flexibility encourages custom, unique designs and discourages standardization and manufacturing efficiency.
Left: Standard site-built construction mobilizes a production facility on site. For all its problems, site-built construction has remained the most efficient way to build. Size, complexity and the difficulty of managing construction sites make it difficult to duplicate a site-built house in the way one would typically manufacture products. Right: a Connect Homes module leaving our factory. Nearly every Connect Home sold is a variation on a standard design—able to be tuned to a clients program and site, but still optimized for duplicability.
Given that site-building as a manufacturing process has been around since before the pyramids, can it really be that inefficient and difficult?
With site-built construction, production is completely at the mercy of the local building marketplace. If you want to build a house in a popular location, or in an unpopular location where there isn’t access to skilled labor, tight labor markets are a problem. With change orders, schedule delays and the high cost of labor, site-building inevitably takes three times as long and costs three times as much as predicted (ask anyone who has ever built a house). Scarily, it is also possible for clients to not know how much their house will cost to build until they are 12 months into the project and have spent $100K in architecture fees. This happens when a house is designed, engineered and permitted, the project goes out to bid to contractors, and everyone finds out the architect has egregiously underestimated the build cost. This often kills the project—but only after the client has lost a lot of cash. Incredibly, even though nothing gets built, the site-building process commonly involves an enormous waste of time, money and energy. This is why hiring an architect to design a house is a risk that only rich people can afford to take.
Why can’t you order a well-designed modular prefab home from a catalog and have it delivered to your site in a fraction of the time and cost it takes to build a custom home on site?
Unfortunately, the modular prefab housing industry cannot offer well-designed homes for less money than typical site-built construction. This is because prefab systems have been designed with a housing manufacturing mindset, not a product manufacturing mindset. The goal in “off-site construction” (as prefab is sometimes called) has been to resemble the standard home building process, not focus on mass-production issues more typical of the product industry.*
Left: The standard module size for the prefab industry is built to the limits of the roadway. This means that shipping long distances is prohibitively expensive, as permits are required in every county the modules travel through. Right: Because of module size, modular home companies are required to have networks of dozens of factories, each building the same thing, each only able to serve customers within a 200-mile radius (represented by the gray circles).
Prefab industry practice is to use oversize modules for delivery—these are sized to the maximum dimensions roadways will allow and supposedly maximize factory production. In actuality, they generate massive production and logistical problems for the industry—problems that have gone unresolved for decades. Believe it or not, it is because of module sizing and its down-chain effects that many more of us aren’t living in beautiful, better-built, less expensive factory-built modular homes.
Unlike every other industry, where a single factory can sell to national and global markets, the prefab housing industry’s oversize modules, which can’t cost-effectively ship further than about 200 miles, require a local factory in every region served. The largest factory-built housing companies have networks of about 30 factories nationally, all building exactly the same products. In product manufacturing terms, this would be like a car manufacturer requiring a production facility in every state they wanted to sell in. It defeats the purpose of industrial-scale production typical of all other product manufacturing.
*Note: I’m referring here to modular prefab houses, which are different from manufactured homes—which are also factory built. Manufactured homes, commonly called mobile homes, are treated as “personal property” and not real property. With their attached chassis, these homes are typically only allowed in trailer parks. Modular homes aim to compete with traditional houses. Manufactured homes are typically seen as transitional housing.
The Connect Homes Solution
We launched Connect Homes in 2012 with the purpose of making beautiful modern, green homes in a factory for less money than we can site-build them. To do this we needed to think like product designers focused on creating a scalable system that can be delivered and installed efficiently. Our patented modular system ships long distances and can be installed on site in just a couple of weeks—a fraction of the time of our competitors’ modular prefab systems. This allows us to serve housing markets globally from a single factory in Southern California. Consolidating production is the key to manufacturing efficiencies in any industry, but this is a first in our industry. Factories are very resource-intensive—they need a large backlog of orders to operate efficiently or factory overhead is unsustainable. Solving the industry’s key logistical problems gives us access to large markets where we can generate more orders, creating economies of scale that drive further efficiency.
The system design emerged from the realization that every product people purchase other than houses is delivered from factories via shipping container. There is good reason for this. The shipping container network makes large-scale delivery of products essentially costless. While it costs about $40K to ship an oversized prefab module cross-country (and hundreds of thousands of dollars to ship overseas), it costs only about $5K to ship a 40-foot-long shipping container carrying 64,000 pounds of cargo anywhere in the world. Our system leverages the intermodal shipping container network, allowing us to ship by train, truck or boat as necessary. We can fully finish modules in a factory, clad them in waterproofing and metal protection panels and ship them via the intermodal shipping container network—just like they were shipping containers.
Right: a finished Connect Homes module gets ready to have waterproofing and protection panels applied. Left: The same module, now with steel protection panels applied, ready to ship on the intermodal network.
Please understand: the modules we build are not recycled or repurposed shipping containers. While shipping containers have recently enjoyed a high profile as prefab housing components, the fact is they are poorly suited to the job. Shipping containers are windowless boxes—all of their structural integrity is in their vertical corrugated walls. Eliminating these walls to make double-wide spaces means extensive and expensive structural retrofits to allow clear-spans. As for recycled shipping containers, they need to be stripped of about a thousand pounds of toxins before they are ready for habitation. Most important, once shipping containers are modified to be housing modules, they can’t any longer be shipped on the intermodal container network. If you add a 20-foot-wide glass door to a shipping container wall, this door will sit outside of the dimensional envelope of the shipping container—and if you try and cover and protect this glass during shipment, you will further violate the dimensional rules of the network.
Connect Homes’ conceptual breakthrough came from realizing that it is the shipping network itself that is the most worthwhile thing about shipping containers. Instead of fetishizing recycled containers, we chose to fetishize the network by turning housing modules themselves into the container used for shipping. The steel frames that form the basis for our modules are put together in such a way that we can place glass anywhere we want to in our buildings and still have structural resistance to wind, earthquakes and the rigors of intermodal transport. This means we can ship our homes up to 90 percent more cheaply than our modular home competitors.
Left: A shipping container, with most of its structure in its vertical corrugated-steel walls, does not work well as the basis for a prefab system. Right: Connect Homes modules’ open steel frames mean they can be infinitely adjusted to site and program and still perform.
Another innovation that makes Connect Homes’ houses more like products and less like our modular prefab counterparts is that our houses ship 90–95 percent complete from the factory, leaving only about two weeks of installation to be done on site. This is in contrast to typical modular prefab homes that are only about 60 percent completed in the factory, leaving the remaining 40 percent to be finished on site, which translates to 4–6 months of finish work—the most skilled, finely detailed work. When a prefab company leaves about half the house to be site-built, it is impossible for that company to know how much a house will cost to complete until they actually build it. Onsite work makes a prefab house subject to the local labor market and the same cost and schedule overruns that plague traditional site-built construction. The advantage of being factory-built is quickly lost and one is left with an unpredictable, non-standardized product.
Left: Typical modular prefab homes ship with some or all of their interior and exterior finishes off of the house. This means months of complex finish work left to be done on the site, where costs aren’t controllable. Right: Connect Homes’ modules are fully finished in the factory—the only thing left undone is the gap between modules and some perimeter trim metal (areas in white in this photo remain to be finished). The Connect Homes install crew travels from the factory and finishes the house in just a couple of weeks.
Connect Homes ship modules essentially complete, with all of their interior finishes, exterior finishes, doors, windows, plumbing system and fixtures, appliances, electrical fixtures, finish roofing, flooring, cabinetry, countertops and tile work installed in the factory. The only things left to be completed on site are the module-line seams (eight-inch gaps between the modules), perimeter gutters, downspouts and metal trim pieces that cover the corner fittings that we’ve borrowed from the world of shipping containers. These finish materials all ship pre-cut inside of the modules, which is how our homes are move-in ready just a couple of weeks after delivery.
A Connect Home as it appears a couple of weeks after delivery. The module seam work is complete and the perimeter trim metal is now installed.
While we have worked hard to make our product the world’s best standardized house, we allow clients to tailor their house to their taste, site and program needs so long as they don’t much compromise factory efficiency. Clients choose from about ten different pre-designed and pre-engineered models that they can reconfigure and customize to their satisfaction. They can put floor-to-ceiling glass anywhere they want to in their house, add both covered and uncovered decking to the exterior, and change out interior or exterior finishes, fixtures and appliances with options we provide or ones they wish to import. Clients appreciate not being overwhelmed with thousands of small choices, as is often the case with typical architect-designed custom houses. Instead they focus on making decisions on elements that they feel strongest about. This makes the design process of a Connect Home much less stressful than working with the typical residential architect.
Above and below: The exteriors and kitchens of two different Connect Homes, showing variability and customization even though the houses are virtually identical. Above: The client went with white metal siding and stained the wood with a vinegar mixture. The house has a 6kW solar system on the roof. This client collects tequila and wanted to have shelving to display bottles in the kitchen and an upgraded appliance package. This house is on an avocado farm. The site-built carport is placed to frame the entry and view through the house to the hillside beyond. The entry to this house also frames the view to the tree-filled hillside beyond. In this case, the client is a graphic designer and went for a warmer wood stain on the exterior—but wanted a perfectly clean modern interior for the kitchen.
Instead of constantly chasing radically new spatial solutions like many of our architect brethren, we are dedicated to the continuous refinement and tweaking of the details of our system to make the houses easier to build in the factory and on site, all with a simultaneous goal of making them aesthetically cleaner and sleeker. Because we have our own factory that only builds Connect Homes, it allows us to constantly be incrementally improving our product. A house we build today may look just like a house we built two years ago, but the details in today’s house may be different because of discoveries we made on how to optimize the prefab process.
The finished Orinda house. The main house is 2,560 square feet and cost about $600,000, including the foundation and fixtures. The smaller guest house/office is 640 square feet and cost about $230,000. You can read more about the project on Curbed.
Connect Homes sells homes for about $200 per square foot, delivered and installed regionally. Costs are only slightly higher if the modules are being shipped long distances. Currently there are three houses being built at any time in our factory, with many orders in the pipeline, including our first homes that will go to the East Coast. We are starting to deliver a home every month. Our first home for a client was on the cover of Dwell magazine last June with the caption “Modern for All.”
We are just at the start of the journey of trying to change the construction industry. But we think we’ve found a way to get people into better designed houses for less money. We are confident that the way we will make architecture at mass-market pricing is by learning as much as possible from the world of products.