Saturday, May 02, 2009


I love the idea of customizable prefab housing, the kind an old lady could build with a screwdriver. The idea is at least a hundred years old, but sad to say, it's an idea whose time still hasn't come.

When I researched this I was surprised to see that Thomas Edison tried to make prefab houses. His idea was to make them out of concrete and build them on the site using molds.

The caption under the picture above tells the story. He sold only eleven of the houses, which were not highly regarded by the people who lived in them.

He even made concrete furniture for the houses!  Above are some concrete phonographs.

Habitat-type prefab condos were attempted in the 60s but the people who lived in them had nothing but complaints, and they got a bad rep. Here's (above) an hexagonal variant. You ordered the hexagon at the factory showroom and a crane put it into place on a frame.

Remember the flying saucer prefabs? You can still buy them.  There were plans to make high rises out of them but I don't think they were ever built. 

The prefab ideal still persists, maybe because people are reminded of it by Legos.

Lego should go into the prefab business and design real houses that look and build just like the Lego toys. I'm serious! Well, maybe the grass should be real.

I like plastic when it doesn't pretend to be something else. Fill large-size Legos with styrofoam for insulation and build real structures with them!

La Corbusier's famous "wine rack" experiment was actually built. A frame was put up and prefab  housing units were slid into place like wine bottles in a wine rack. 

In theory people living in Corbusier's wine rack could change apartments every year, to take advantage of new architectural fashions. The old apartment is simply slid out by a crane, and the new one is inserted, like a file drawer.  I'd be surprised if anyone actually did this.

Where prefab actually took hold was in small backyard structures like tool sheds, gazebos and dog houses.

Some people do attempt to live in these tiny houses. The company that sells the one above advertises that dinners seating 4 or 5 people can be comfortably held there. Of course you probably have to sleep on the table afterward.

IKEA makes prefab houses for the European market, or at least they did when the founder of the store was still alive. That's one of them above. Not very good-looking in my opinion.

The houses are meant to be furnished with IKEA furniture. A consultation with an IKEA interior designer is included with the price of the house.

Maybe 20% of all new Japanese houses are prefab (above). Toyota makes a lot of them.

Here's (above) a Japanese styrofoam prefab. Styrofoam may be the building material of the future, provided a way can be found to prevent the house from blowing away.

Maybe a little old lady with a screwdriver actually could build one of these (above).

Laugh if you want to, but whole communities of styrofoam igloos exist in Japan.

Japanese prefabs come in all sizes and shapes. The one above works fine as a counterpoint to the older houses on the street, but a whole block of houses like that might be a bit much. 

If prefab makes a comeback then the post-modern look will probably get new life. One reason prefab was abandoned years ago was that complicated prefab shapes didn't ship very well. The new architectural aesthetic with its emphasis on simplistic, flat, walls probably ships very well.

That's all I have to say on the subject, but I couldn't help throwing in this off-topic picture of a Japanese home. The builder wanted his homes to look like they were miniature communities, even though they were occupied by single families. The rooms deliberately appear like little separate buildings surrounded by paths and courtyards. Actually they're all one structure. Nifty, huh?


Unknown said...

I really actually like the sound of this. the thought of a house that looks like a mini city, and a functional hexagonal house seems pretty cool!

Brubaker said...

I've seen tons of pre-fab houses back when I lived in Japan. Miraculously, I've never seen a single ice-cream shaped one, although I have vague recollections of houses similar to the ones you've posted.

We always lived in those old-fashioned wooden home with pottery-tile roofs and sliding door. Cozy, although the lack of functioning air conditioning was a bitch. And centipedes...lots and lots of centipedes.

Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea said...

I live in Japan, but I don't think I've seen many of these kinds of houses. I wish I had, though! Love these strange designs. It must be sort of scary to live in that wine-rack experiment.

Lester Hunt said...

Concrete furniture. File under S for "seemed like a good idea at the time."

Frank said...

Hey Eddie, I'm really intrigued by that last house. Can we get more info/a link to see bigger photos?

3awashi thani said...

aaaw i love the styrofoam igloo !

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Frank: I don't remember where I got that picture. Try googling "Japan prefab" and see if anything turns up.

kellie said...

I have a memory of seeing a book years ago about the American West that reproduced pages of a 19th century catalog for ordering prefab stores, saloons, and other commercial buildings. It made sense to me that all that fancy fretwork and wood turning would be mass produced in the east and shipped out west by rail.

Julian said...

Those igloos are adorable. They look like sets from a theme park.

Kirk Nachman said...

I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, where many of the early foam houses found a place in the early seventies, (the architect is fairly notable, but I forget his name). We lived for a time just over from the "Mushroom house" which appeared, with other local designs of it's kind, in Woody Allen's Sleeper. There's alot of rekindled interest in the Finnish design from that period (the flying saucer ski-lodge you posted here)--we built a replica of that very building at P.S.1 contemporary art center here in NYC for a show of contempo Finnish art. A sort of lounge. The Warhol fallout continues. Artworlders really don't care about art, but moreso clubs and scenes and subcultures and celebrity for its own's fukin' bleak... Animation and comics are in the toilet too. Dark Ages, Eddie. Where does one turn?

Craig said...

While shooting a film in Copenhagen, we frequented a community called Cristiania. It's an off-the-grid "a city within a city" that was once a barracks for soldiers. In 1971, young and homeless people moved in (without the city's permission) and proclaimed Christiania a "free city." It's a huge cultural experiment - - "an oasis of self-government, collective spirit, and individual freedom" - - and the architecture reflects this. Christiana has some of the most eclectic structures we've ever seen.

Unknown said...

Just so nobody gets the wrong idea, the founder of IKEA, Ingvar Kamprad, is still alive.

Hans Flagon said...

They tried the le corbusier wine rack experiment when they were building Walt DisneyWorld for the contemporary resort. They finally gave up and did more of the construction on site. In David Koenigs book RealityLand ISBN 0964060523.

Of course prefab is actually doing better than ever, the problem is, that the majority of it looks (and lasts?) every bit as cheap as it was to build, not much more than the double wide trailer tossed together

There is also nice well designed prefab out there, but you see more of it in magazines and books than the real world.

Brubaker said...


I thought I'd mention this. Bob Jaques gave me scans of the notes you gave him on the "Worm Paranoia" short. I posted it on my blog (Bob gave me permission to put it up)

I.D.R.C. said...

How did you miss these?

40-ft. containers would seem a natural for real practical prefab.

William said...

Prefab doesn't have to mean on the ground...

What about having your own snail shell and carrying your house around with you?
It's from a Dutch pseudoanarchist design collective, how could anything go wrong?

Build your own microhouse while you're at it- instructions included- it's waterproof!

Eddie, you should do an entry at seasteading.
Microcountries on the sea- the way of the future!

buzz said...

I think modern (i.e., everything after 1970) architecture IS based on Legos!

Anonymous said...

Those Japanese dome-shaped houses are a kind of holiday cottage. They're at a kind of mountain retreat resort / theme park called Aso Farmland.
Info -
(if you read Japanese - if not the pictures are pretty!)

Michelle Klein-Hass said...

That smarty Warren Buffett has sunk some of his considerable wealth into a company called Clayton Homes, which is manufacturing new green prefab houses called iHouse. Yes, you got that right...iHouse. Someone call Steve Jobs!

Actually they look pretty kewl. If I win the lottery and also wind up with the plot of land in Arleta that supposedly I'm up to inherit, (the house currently there is shot to hell) I'm going to go for it.

Anonymous said...

Prefab houses look so cool, but too small and uncomfortable! :)