Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Pre-Fab Housing

Sarah Williams Goldhagen has an interesting, if flawed, article on the history, aesthestics, and sustainability of pre-fabricated housing in America. It's a good article, but I have trouble buying the idea that pre-fab housing is any kind of solution for American housing problems.

First, I don't buy the idea that mass producing houses on an assembly line really solves any contemporary American problem. While she's right that this would have been a good idea to start 50 or 100 years ago, it's not as if the United States has a real shortage of housing stock. Sure, local zoning laws cause all kinds of problems; perhaps a sustained attack on these local prerogatives in 1910 or 1947 would have been useful. But if anything, we have too much housing, not too little.

Toward the end of the article, Goldhagen argues that pre-fab housing could be a greener alternative to current housing practices. It's entirely possible, but more because current construction practices are about as anti-environmental as possible. Almost anything would be better. Were the government to force developers to adopt greener standards, maybe pre-fab would be a good idea. But then again, if the government did this, wouldn't Goldhagen's thesis be undermined? The greatest environmental problems with American housing revolve around sprawl and addiction to the autombile and I'm not sure how single-family units change this, regardless of how they are built. Even her examples of green pre-fab are basically experimental projects. Sure it's possible that those ideas could get adopted by developers, but it sure as hell is unlikely. I'm quite unaware of utopian urban plans being adopted by a majority of developers. The federal government simply has not played a central enough role in urban planning to make these ideas a reality.

Goldhagen is a lot more convincing on the aesthetic history of pre-fab housing, which I found quite interesting and definitely recommend reading.