Wednesday, May 23 , 2018, 1:39 am | Fair 57º

 
 
 
 

Garcia Architects: Prefabricated Homes — Custom and Cost-Effective

Factory-built buildings are generally less expensive and offer environmental benefits

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about prefabricated homes, yet there’s also a great deal of mystery about them.

As a young, aspiring architect, I wondered why buildings weren’t built like automobiles were, especially once I started seeing firsthand how time-consuming and expensive it was to create construction drawings.

“Why do we build the same way we did 100 years ago and reinvent the wheel with every project?” I’d ask my bosses. They said I should be thankful that was the case since we would be out of a job if it wasn’t. But being a pragmatist and an efficiency-seeker, I never gave up on the question.

Tract homes are the most common answer to this question. They allow a much reduced price over a custom home. Although providing affordable housing is imperative, cookie-cutter communities are not always very appealing.

Most people have an appreciation for unique houses. Even more efficiently constructed than tract homes, manufactured or mobile homes are built in a factory utilizing an assembly-line approach with many automated processes. But again, this solution is not typically the American dream.

Prefabricated homes are different. It’s true that many prefab homes are pre-designed and can be selected from a catalog, with several plan or façade alternatives from which to choose. But many are custom homes designed by an architect hired by a client. These structures are built within a factory very similar to how they would be built on-site. The trades are bid out, and the subcontractors are hired by the factory.

However, the buildings must be designed and constructed in modules that are small enough to transport on truck beds to the job site. Typically 10 to 15 feet wide, these modules join together via a double wall or, where expansive spaces are needed, a beam. These modular buildings can be any style, modern or traditional, but tend to lend themselves to a contemporary design.

Factory-built buildings, even custom-designed ones, are usually less expensive than those that are site-built, because factories are located where labor is cheap. The transportation cost to the site, however, can offset the savings if the site is too far away. The buildings are typically delivered to the site with the interiors already completely built-out, including kitchens and bathrooms, so once at the site, they can be completed within about a week. There is less waste produced when a home is factory-produced vs. site-built.

In towns where the cost of construction is expensive, taking the prefab route may be the only way to afford a new custom home. In Santa Barbara, a site-constructed, average middle-class house runs about $300 per square foot. The same home built in a factory might cost about 25 percent less with the added environmental benefits of being more eco-friendly even with the transport factored in. Passing over the local contractors may be frowned upon, however. Of course, remodels, additions and other specific types of projects are still better suited for on-site construction.

Multifamily residential buildings and commercial buildings can be prefabricated as well. I worked on several Bank of America branches that were prefabricated. This approach cut the construction schedule in half. These buildings were built in the factory in about six weeks while the site work, such as the foundation, paving and utility hook-ups, were completed, They were then transported, erected and finished within two additional weeks.

Most prefab companies are really architectural firms, development companies or dealers that have created a new brand to outsource the fabrication to one of a few large factories. Some well-known architects tried to push prefab 40 years ago, and are now doing so again with the recent resurgence of the environmental movement. It may seem surprising that architects like the idea of a type of construction that requires less of our time, but we are, first and foremost, advocates for our clients — with a goal of achieving the best building possible for their dollar.

— Elisa Garcia is the owner of Garcia Architects, 122 E. Arrellaga St. Click here to read her blog, in which she writes about architecture, design, interiors and management. Garcia can be reached at 805.856.9118 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 

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