The Impressive Evolution Of Prefabricated Houses

There are some truly prefabulous options out there.

Newly constructed prefabricated house on Block Isl
Getty ImagesJohn G. Zimmerman

Although the concept of prefabricated houses is not a new one, it has certainly evolved and expanded in the past few decades to become a viable path to homeownership for people of all economic backgrounds, in every part of the country, and with varying design inclinations. When you hear the term prefabricated house (often shortened to prefab), it refers to a type of building construction rather than a specific style of house. Prefab homes are those that are built off-site and then transported to and assembled at a final destination.

House moving by truck
Getty ImagesFederica Grassi

A Brief History

In general, because they offer the ability to build a house cheaper, faster, and more sustainably than traditional building methods. The idea of manufacturing the components of a building in one site and assembling it in another is truly ancient—there are records of the Romans using prefabricated components to build forts quickly in newly conquered lands.

But the concept of prefabricated homes as we know them today was born around the turn of the 20th century thanks to kit homes. Thanks to an expansion of the postal service and advances developed out of the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing companies like Sears and Roebuck and Aladdin Co. sent out you could simply order by mail.

Sears House Kit
Getty ImagesBoston Globe

A describes it this way: “A potential homeowner could see what he wanted in a magazine ad, sales office or catalogue, write a check and order the American dream. It would arrive at the nearest train depot in one or two boxcars, weighing upwards of 50,000 pounds, to be hauled by horse cart or truck to the building site. Armed with detailed instructions, the buyer (or a hired contractor) assembled as many as 30,000 numbered pieces.”

The concept was revolutionary: People in remote areas had access to the same of-the-moment homes their city-dwelling peers did. And people moving to newly developed areas for jobs could quickly secure affordable housing. Prefab methods were also used in the mass suburban housing developments that were built all over the country after World War II.

Prefabricated Homes Today

In the 21st century, there are three types of housing that fall under the category of prefabricated home: manufactured, modular, and mobile homes.

Manufactured homes used to be known as mobile or trailer homes, but housing laws in the 1970s and ‘80s officially distinguished these dwellings from true mobile homes, which are trailers set on wheels. Manufactured homes come in three sizes: single-, double-, and triple-wide, which denotes the number of sections the house is composed of. Manufactured homes are fully constructed in a remote home building facility on a steel frame and then transported to the final site where it is set on a permanent foundation. Because the houses are built off-site, they fall under the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s codes as far as building and safety standards are concerned.


Modular homes are structures made of multiple sections that are also constructed off-site, but the sections don’t come together until they’re at the final building site. As such, are required to comply with local building and zoning laws, as opposed to the federal law. The modules that make up these homes are constructed with the same materials as traditionally built houses, and when assembled, can be placed end-to-end, stacked, or side-by-side (a crane is required for assembly). The module sections may comprise the entire building or only part of it—these homes , completely customizable, and architecturally diverse.

Modular Reno
Getty ImagesBernard Weil

In both cases of manufactured and modular homes, there is additional cost and preparation involved with the final home site. Land has to be purchased and zoned for a prefab house, the foundation has to be built, and utility lines have to be made accessible, to name a few. Luckily, these arrangements can be handled at the same time the house is being built off-site, which saves time in the overall project.


Mobile homes are those that are truly mobile: They’re trailers on wheels that can be pulled by a vehicle. Most Tiny Houses fall under this category. Mobile homes are also fully constructed in a facility, and since they remain on wheels, don’t necessarily have a final destination. As such, they’re considered personal property instead of housing, and are licensed by the Department of Motor Vehicles and must abide by its guidelines for building and safety compliance.

image
Jeffrey Freeman

There are a lot of appealing benefits to purchasing a prefab home. For one, since they’re constructed in a climate-controlled facility, the homes are typically very structurally sound and many have proven to be able to withstand natural disasters better than stick-built homes. By building homes in an assembly-line type fashion, there is considerably less waste associated with prefab homes than site-built houses.

Although it is not always true, purchasing a prefabricated home can be a much cheaper alternative than investing in a site-built house. Most manufacturers of prefab homes set up building facilities in areas where materials and labor are cheaper, which lowers costs for the buyer. Additionally, building time is much shorter, which also lowers costs. With a recent increased interest in sustainable building, have become available that are quite the opposite of cheap. Higher-end finishes and eco-friendly building materials will cost you more, but the other perks of speedy construction and sturdy building remain.


Prefab modular Green home
Getty ImagesEducation Images

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