Pre-fab housing: is it sustainable?

by hhf3

Last night, I went to hear Sarah Rich, the editor of Dwell magazine, speak at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

She covered a lot of things related to personal and corporate responsibility, especially when it comes to the environment, all through the lens of design. She made a really great point about working on the design of systems instead of the design of products. As product envy gets us to buy certain things, system envy can perhaps get us to change our behavior.

Another item she covered about the intersection of design and sustainability was pre-fabricated housing. Dwell is a huge advocate of pre-fab housing for a variety of reasons, including the decreased energy costs as compared to building on site.

A bucolic pre-fab house.

I get that it is less energy-intensive than building on site. But, as someone who works in the transportation planning field doing freight planning, I can’t help but wonder – wouldn’t the huge transportation costs off-set the gains from pre-fabricating it? Each of these sections has to be transported by truck. Trucks, aside from their emissions, also put a lot more stress on pavement.

I’m also not sure of where these pre-fab factories are located. Is this is a national model, with the potential for a house to travel from one of the country to another for it to be built? Hardly counts for the local aspect of sustainability. I could see a network of pre-fab designers/factories based regionally being more eco-friendly. Then, aside from decreased transportation costs, they could design based on conditions in the region (pitched roofs for snow, etc.).

I’m not totally against pre-fab housing – I think it has fantastic potential for post-disaster areas, as well as impoverished communities – but I’m having a hard time buying that it is more sustainable. I guess I’d like to see someone run the numbers.