One of the earliest forms of prefabricated building technology still in use today is the balloon (timber stud) wall frame, believed to have first been used around two hundred years ago and even now the concealed skeletal basis of the vast majority of contemporary global housing. Whilst much of current residential construction is prefabricated in some way, the housing industry is yet to industrialise the process on a large scale. Often heralded as a potential solution to the complex problems of meeting the needs of both housing demand and affordability, prefabricated housing is yet to be fully adopted in the suburban living. Perhaps it is because much of systematised construction fails to provide the personal connection we seek with our dwellings. If so, it may be that the success of a prefabricated response to housing needs lies, then, in a rethinking of how its very building methodology might facilitate a greater sense of space and place in the dwellings produced.
The question arises that prefabricated construction, is it really the future?, does it offer safety, durability may be for a lifetime, or can endure natural disasters?. We all being engineers, architects, construction workers are quite aware of the concrete usage in the building, yet we are the same individuals who argues that the costs are rising and we do acknowledge equally that pre-fabricated housing offers quite a relief in many cases. In post-disaster situations, design matters, technology matters and so does the procedure for right execution. It equally calls to think that is prefabricated housing is only left to be productive in the emergency housing, and there is no possibility to associate the aesthetics to it?
Building in a prefabricated manner, often associated with the adoption of technology and advances in contemporary production, is by no means a new concept. One of the earliest forms of prefabricated building technology still in use today is the balloon or timber stud wall frame, commonly believed to have first been used around 1833 in Chicago, although possibly having derived from a building technique introduced to America by French migrants as early as 1804. The principle of this new technology was to build lightly, quickly, and thereby cheaply through the utilisation of readily available long timbers milled to length and nailed together by unskilled carpenters or indeed, by the untrained building owners themselves. Having removed the need for bespoke joinery connections, entire walls could be fabricated as single full height timber units over multiple storeys, tilted into place and completed with floor frames that would be side-fixed at a later stage with simple nailed fixings.
This methodology saw a move away from traditional timber joinery, whereby only skilled carpenters could piece components together through a series of carefully sculpted mortise and tenon joints. Suddenly, building could become industrialised: simple, efficient, non-wasteful and inexpensive. Significantly, it could also be procured through a greater network of lesser skilled tradespeople in an atmosphere of speed and ease over craft. Today, we may not have long old growth timbers with which to build over two or more storeys, but the balloon frame concept’s legacy remains in the contemporary light timber framing of our suburbs, where upper floor timber platforms sit on single story stud walls below. The balloon frame concept has seen a shift away from massive sedentary structures, where the structure itself forms the building skin, towards one of a skeletal frame that receives its skin in the form of any number of lightweight cladding and lining choices.
In many respects, such mass customisation is something to which we still aspire in our buildings. Two hundred years after the balloon frame, the ideals of prefabrication are something we still strive to achieve, arguably as if this thinking is something new. Mass manufacturing in the prefabricated context has enabled goods to be affordable to those who ultimately produced them in an arrangement of by-the-worker-for-the-worker. In more recent times the production line teams have made way for robotised assembly and whilst such construction advances are evident to us today in the making of products such as our mobile phones and cars, the technological change in the way in which we assemble our buildings has been more glacial.
By contrast, much of contemporary prefabricated architecture appears embedded in a methodology that attempts to conceal its mechanics rather than celebrate or exploit them. Prefabricated dwellings often present as camouflaged bespoke offerings that differ only in the manner in which they are procured. This can be evidenced in any number of prefabricated buildings that are praised for the fact that one would never guess them to be ready-made. Such projects are often realised as stand-alone stunts, more regarded as an attempt to recreate traditional on-site building methodology within a factory setting and focus on using prefabrication as a means of providing the consumer with quality control, time and cost benefits.
In short, the architectural intention appears to be one of denying the occupant a tacit understanding of how the building fabric came to be an architectural business as usual, as if the architecture that results from prefabricated building methodologies is something of which to be ashamed; perceived of, perhaps, as less of a building.
Perhaps the most aesthetically unambiguous example of prefabrication in architecture is the shipping container. Built to International Organization for Standardization (ISO) set dimensions, freight containers by nature are designed for the best fit across the multiple delivery platforms of land, sea and air. They are understandably designed to be robust, durable, reusable and relocatable; traits often desired in prefabricated buildings. But whilst these qualities can clearly be beneficial when applied to buildings, particularly where a structure is required to be transportable, containers are inherently limited in the way in which their forms and internal spaces can be adapted for human occupation; they are, of course, ultimately “contained”. The designer must eventually yield to working within the constraints of the unit’s dimensions, structure and materiality – too much adaptation and the given framework of the container is lost and its raison d’être as a building, denied.
Prefabrication appears to make economic sense: it has the potential to be designed as a known entity with minimal wastage and rapid, quality-controlled construction. But it appears that at the heart of prefabrication lies a dilemma: in the absence of a personal connection with its patron, can an architecture of the individual permeate the mass production means by which it is created?