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"Prefabulous + Sustainable" Is a Beautiful Book, But It Doesn't Make the Case

The prefabricated housing industry has been touting its product’s green credentials for years, saying that building in a factory not only saves time and money, but materials and energy as well. The truth is a lot more complex—not every prefabricated house is green one (for reasons why, see “Prefabricating Green,” EBN Oct. 2007). In Prefabulous + Sustainable: Building and Customizing an Affordable, Energy-Efficient Home (Abrams, 2010; 240 pages, $25), Sheri Koones explores how prefabrication can assist homeowners looking for a green house, and presents 25 case studies that range from “green” to “greenest.”

The book is beautiful—most of the houses themselves are stunning—and contains many ideas for incorporating green measures into prefabricated housing. Each house has a story, as well, of a homeowner or manufacturer who pushed for a greener product. A variety of prefabrication techniques are represented, from panelized construction to modular homes, and a full list of products and manufacturers makes the book particularly useful for those wanting to replicate the ideas presented.

Unfortunately, Koones doesn’t push the boundaries with this book. She takes it for granted that, as she says, “prefabrication is intrinsically green.” Koones doesn’t cite studies or data to back that argument, which is no surprise since no studies have shown prefabrication to be definitively greener than site-built construction. She also misses an opportunity to describe how the homeowners and architects in the book managed to work around some of the challenges of getting mainstream prefabricators to build green. Many green building techniques are not “business as usual” in house factories, meaning that they are often treated as upgrades and priced accordingly.

That said, Prefabulous + Sustainable does a good job of highlighting how green prefabrication can be. Perhaps it will help create demand for a green product, pushing the industry towards environmental responsibility.

Published August 17, 2010

Wendt, A. (2010, August 17). "Prefabulous + Sustainable" Is a Beautiful Book, But It Doesn't Make the Case. Retrieved from

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August 23, 2010 - 11:54 am

Although there hasn’t been a great deal of documentation on the green aspects of prefab – I do think there is ample evidence in "Prefabulous and Sustainable." Take a look at the photo on page 12 of the introduction. There are rows of cutoffs 4”, 41/2” and 5” that will be used by Connor Homes for other projects – in a site built home, these pieces would be in the dumpster.

There is also a study sited in the introduction of “Framing the American Dream” (WTCA)where 2 houses were built side by side – one site-built and the other panelized. That study showed a significant savings for the panelized house in man-hours, lumber, scrap generated and dumpsters required.

With all prefab houses, the supplies are shipped in bulk to the factory, instead of individual shipments to a variety of sites. Workers generally live close to the factories, minimizing the traveling time and fuel required to travel to sites where houses are built. Various professionals, such as plumbers and electricians, can work on several houses in one day, in the same location – rather than traveling to several sites in a day.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) concluded, in a study after Hurricane Andrew in August 1992, that modular houses withstood the hurricane far better than site-built housing. (Publication number FIA-22) So building stronger also means less re-building in the future.

Both the LEED and NAHBGreen standards offer points for modular and other component parts for certification.

Green building is not “business as usual” for site builders any more than prefab builders. However, the homeowners in this book didn’t have major problems getting the prefab companies to build green. They were selective in their decisions and most often chose green options rather than expensive other upgrades such as marble countertops. Most of these houses were not significantly more expensive to build than less efficient houses and were generally significantly less expensive to maintain.

Just as I point out that there are different levels of Green, there are also different levels of quality and green building offered by different prefab manufacturers and by different site builders. A really good site builder could possibly replicate the performance of these homes, but the process would consume more energy, resources, and time, and ultimately be a more expensive, and less green project.

I have been studying prefabrication for several years and although there aren’t many “official” studies on prefab, it is clear to me that all prefab methods are “greener” that site-building a house.