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.
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.
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.
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.
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.*
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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I'm right there with you Gordon. Thinking about homes as products is the way to go. Too long buildings have been rough draft, prototype, and finished product all in one. It's not fair to the individuals building them to find out all the pitfalls of home construction, only after going too far down the rabbit hole. I understand your homes are made in California, and being products, are allowed the opportunity for refinement over time, but as products of mass production, shouldn't they be more affordable? $200/ft isn't nothing. So much of what you said sounded like opportunity for efficiency. And in my mind efficiency equals affordability. Right?
Hey Sean. Totally. Right now, we make tons of sense in high-cost-to-build-regions -- we are about 1/3rd the cost of building an architect-designed house in SF. About 1/2 in LA and NY region. And we are all-steel moment frame construction, which is pretty much the most expensive way to build a house, but necessary for the shipping component we are trying to solve. If you live somewhere expensive and you want to live in a modern glass/steel box, we have you covered and we can save you a ton. That is why it is important that we can serve all markets -- so we can reach enough of these high-cost regions to generate the volume to bring costs down. Not to punt your affordability question down the field a bit, but we are working to bring costs down and IMHO, our prefab competitors offer much less home for much more money.... Stay tuned.
I agree with you there. The comparative cost in regions without access to low cost labor or land, it makes a lot of sense. Hopefully you'll blow up in those markets to scale up production and scale back cost soon. It's a great idea that I'm sure will catch on. I'll be first in line for your "economy" built homes.
this steel frame reminded me Blue Sky Building System's Bolted Moment Frame, are you guys using the same technology? and how is the steel handling california earthquake?
I've long been looking at shipping containers as a potential housing solution given my circumstances. One thing I like about the shipping container solution vs others, is that one can always get containers over time and store them on your plot of land or on land where they will be converted. A sort of stockpiling solution that results in eventually having the bits to start a home but paying as you go.
This seems like a decent alternative to mortgages for those who already took a house-sized debt for design school, but maybe I'm just disenfranchised in the banking system and should be ignored, that's fine too!
If these house-part modules were things that could be purchased and then stuffed under a tarp in a warehouse or on a plot of land for a period of 2-5 years while the owner slowly pays for new ones and then can all be conjoined at the end without worrying about a 2017 model being incompatible with a 2020 model, it would be an option.
If these units have to be bought and planned as a complete house project, and aren't universal then there's not much deviation from the standard house model which puts it less attractive to some.
Interesting. I have been watching the prefab industry for a couple of years now and wondering if it will ever get a solid foot hold. Here is a company with an interesting approach. http://bonestructure.ca/en/
Thanks, Steve. Totally. Although it is interesting to note that Charles Eames framed the Eames house with his buddies in 16 hours. A system like bonestructures means that you still leave months of finish work to be done onsite. If you are in a high cost region.... you end up paying a lot. Okay. I'm going to stop sitting on the comments section. Thanks for reading!
Interesting post, also worth mentioning, the Vipp Shelter is a beautiful merger of industrial design and architecture. Not intended to be a permanent home, interesting execution though.
Thanks, Alex. That Vipp house is super sweet. (And ungodly expensive. And the approvals thing is kinda spotty). But great execution on the wow factors. And sleeping in that little skylight hatch seems like it would be a blast. Certainly the right direction.