A Brief History of Prefabrication
Written By Carol Dunn

Prefabrication is not a new concept. In fact, its use is documented as far back as 1624 with a panelized wood house shipped from England to Massachusetts. Over the next four centuries, as highlighted in the video from Redshift by Autodesk, “The History of Prefabrication, From Roman Forts to Modern Modular Housing,” a surprising number of opportunities for prefabrication have been seized upon in the history of the modern world. Notable milestones included:

1837 – Portable cottages and farm buildings were being constructed in England.

1839 – Kit houses were shipped to California for Gold Rush settlers.

1889 – The Eiffel Tower was finished in preparation for the World’s Fair. It was assembled in the record speed of two years, two months and five days from iron elements and prefab components prepared offsite at a factory on the outskirts of Paris.

1908 – Sears, Roebuck and Company began shipping kit homes and other buildings. About 75,000 units in 447 different styles were sold at prices ranging from $443 to $3,506.

1917 – Thomas Edison conceived of cast-in-place concrete houses.

1919 – Cast-in-place apartment units were constructed without the need for metal framing in England.

1929 – Prefab housing was used in the depression-ravaged United States.

1930 – A metal dome house – the Dymaxion – was invented that could be factory manufactured, disassembled and transported for reassembly onsite.

1936 – The Airstream Clipper, a “luxury home on wheels,” was developed with what became an iconic silver-bullet shape.

1945 – Prefab houses were mass produced (sometimes in as little as one day) in Britain to ease the post-WW2 housing crisis. Meant to last at most a decade, some lasted upwards of 70 years. A few were ultimately registered as historic buildings.

1947 – Construction on Levittown suburban housing developments began, using assembly-line production. They were built in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Puerto Rico using rapid construction processes that could achieve a house a day.

1948 – Mobile homes with bathrooms were in production. Congress approved changing the name from “mobile home” to “manufactured home” in 1980.

                                                                    Photo credit: Arch Daily.

1967 – Habitat 67, one of the architectural pavilions presented at the World’s Fair in Montreal, consisted of 354 modular units stacked to form 148 residences.

1977 – The Ramot complex in Israel is a mixed-use development containing shopping, education services, courtyards, walking paths, parking, and modular dodecahedron apartments. Built using prefabrication techniques, the apartment complex looks similar to beehives.

1996 – BoKlok prefab sustainable mini-homes were offered in blocks of flats and terraced housing in Sweden, Norway and Finland.

2003 – LOT-EK mobile dwelling units with extendable and retractable modules, developed from converted shipping containers. Units constructed in South Africa, Holland, New York, California and Arkansas include townhomes, apartments, dormitories, single-family, and live-work lofts.

2015 – The world’s tallest 3D printed building, a five-story apartment building in China, was completed using prefabricated sections made of cement, steel, glass fiber and recycled construction waste.

2016 – The world’s tallest modular building was completed in New York. Part of a residential and commercial development, it was described as “pre-fab apartments that stack like Tetris blocks into a 32-story building.”

2017 – The BIM process was used to design and build a 500-bed hospital in India at one-quarter of the typical cost.

2018 – Prefab modular apartment units were being built in an old submarine factory and sold in San Francisco to ease the affordable housing crisis.

With nearly 400 years of history, prefabrication has been tested and refined over time to the point where it is a part of the fabric of our construction culture. If your firm is new to prefab, or if you just need to tighten up your prefab processes, contact eVolve MEP today to learn how you can innovate your workflows. And prepare to be amazed.

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