What Really Makes A Prefab Home

Apr 10 • Architects, Articles • 1627 Views • No Comments on What Really Makes A Prefab Home

By Phil Roberts

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Ask most people what the term prefabricated home means, and they’ll tell you it is a factory made house. Still, there are some builders who claim to be prefab builders when they are not.

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“The prefab industry makes outrageous claims,” says Graham Smith, one of the principals at Altius, a group of companies that includes a multi-disciplinary Architectural firm, a construction management division and Altius Prefab that design and manufactures the Solo, Duo and Hybrid modular prefabs both in Ontario and California.

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“Consumers have been lead to believe that prefabs are the end all and be all panacea, but in reality past 1500 square feet, you are often better off building onsite,” he says.

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The benefits of prefab housing are not always clear. Not only that, the term prefab is often misleading. Homes built by companies such as BONE Structure are often confused as prefab homes when they are in fact site built with a “modular” building system. Smith says “in reality conventional stick framing is also a ‘modular system’ however when we say something is prefab it means that it is almost entirely prefabricated in a factory and then shipped to the project site.”

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In Canada, common prefab constructions fall under three categories set by the Canadian Standards Association: 1) Park model trailers 2)  Manufactured Homes 3) Factory constructed buildings and structures Modular / Panelized.

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Altius’ latest prefab, the Solo 40, falls into category 2 and is classified as a CSA Z240/A277 Factory Certified Building. It can be transported on its own chassis, does not need to be installed with a crane and can go just about anywhere, including islands and very remote properties where site building can often be extremely costly.

By building modules in a factory space, Altius doesn’t have to follow the typical site built construction process.  “We can be dry-walling an interior before we have the roof on,” says Smith, “it’s a completely different way of building and it offers some remarkable efficiency and vastly improved quality control due to the climate controlled facility.”  The savings can be anywhere between 15 and 30% in construction cost when compared to a similar site built project.  “Clients really under estimate the cost of transporting labour and materials to remotes sites and the time and expense to open and close down a construction site on a daily basis for months and months.” Smith says, “We can complete a Solo and install it on site in 4-8 weeks from the time we start production including permits and site services because the modules are being built in the factory concurrently with all the planning and site work.  It seems odd but sometimes we have completed the building before the client even has a building permit.”

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“People don’t want to preside over a construction site,” explains Smith. “They don’t want to deal with contractors and they want budget certainty.  The prefab approach provides that.” However, what many people overlook is that site work is still required for prefabs. You still need a building permit, a water source, septic and hydro. A consumer can still spend between $30,000 and $50,000 to prep a site. “We really try to stress to potential clients that there’s a lot more involved than simply delivering a prefab to a property. There is still a lot of expertise required and Altius is able to provide turn-key services with one integrated team.”

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“Building cost is the biggest misconception. People think that because you’re building a small house that should cost less per square foot than a big house, however it is just the opposite because there is no economy of scale and we are packing a lot of expensive elements (kitchens, bathrooms, etc…) into a very small package”.  Also Smith says that consumers should not confuse Altius’ prefabs with RVs and mobile homes. “We build our prefabs to the same standard that we build custom homes for our private clients.  Altius prefabs meet and exceed the National Building Code of Canada and the California Building Code.”

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According to Smith, anecdotal information from developers and reality TV hide a lot of the real cost of building, “Consumers hear that developers site build homes for less than $200/sf and expect that they should be able to achieve that on their remote cottage site when in reality developers are building a standardized product on an industrial scale with efficiencies not available to the general consumer.”

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In the US, where there is a more established prefab culture, Altius’ prefabs are certified by either the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD Code) or by individual State Building Codes.  Altius is delivering units this year from their certified factory in Los Angeles, including shipping one of their largest Solo models to Hawaii, two custom Hybrid projects in Malibu and an entire development in Sacramento.

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“We’re trying to bring an architect designed, energy efficient prefab product to the broader market,” he says. Though many projects in glossy magazines claim to be ‘prefab’, more often than not they are expensive one-off projects. “Working with an architect and builder to custom design a home is expensive,” Smith says “Altius is offering a streamlined process and a pre-designed modular product that makes the experience more predictable and affordable. We have Architects, Construction Managers and two certified factories, it makes Altius very unique.”

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