Factory-manufactured housing could play a significant role in lowering the cost of housing in the United States. More houses--especially single-family dwellings--will be made in factories, transported to the site and assembled. On-site construction--which is basically custom-building each house from scratch--typically takes months, while factory-manufactured houses could be assembled in days at enormous cost savings.
Unlike the "prefab" houses of the past, factory-manufactured houses are high-quality, high-tech products with sophisticated electronic and computer circuitry built in. Factory-manufactured houses now produced in Sweden and Japan have pre-installed wiring, doors and windows in highly insulated walls. The houses are snug and energy efficient, and in many cases quality is higher than would have been possible with on-site construction.
Such houses will go out of date faster and faster because of advancing technology. Consumers' housing needs will also change more rapidly as divorces occur, as generations move in together and as other changes take place in family configuration. And a highly mobile work force--with people changing jobs and moving from city to city every few years--could mean that homeowners will look for ways to avoid having to sell their houses frequently.
These conditions could lead to the "disposable" home. Lower cost, factory-manufactured homes would be used for a few years, then sold to a home-recycling center and retrofitted. Much like automobiles, houses would be purchased with the idea that they would be scrapped after a while. In fact, houses could become such sophisticated, complex products that they could no longer be repaired by a do-it-yourselfer with household tools--or even by a trained home-repair or remodeling crew.
Some in the housing industry have raised concerns about loss of jobs in the construction industry if factory-manufactured houses become widespread. But factory construction of homes can benefit housing workers as well as home buyers because it creates relatively stable employment opportunities, the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment says.
The current system of on-site construction of housing often throws workers out of their jobs because of feast-or-famine situations created in part by a housing market that is too expensive for many Americans to enter.
Factory construction of housing could allow millions more Americans to own homes (and perhaps scrap them later). This would bring about strong growth in the home-building industry and has the potential to provide more jobs--some in factories, others assembling homes at the site and others recycling and retrofitting homes that have been disposed of.
The United States has lagged in the factory manufacture of housing, according to the OTA. If American home builders continue to go slow, they will face tough foreign competition, just as U.S. automobile makers have. Scandinavia and Japan, which lead the world in manufactured housing, will be tough opponents.
"Recently, many U.S. home producers have become vulnerable to foreign competition as factory-based construction techniques have improved rapidly in several other countries," OTA Director John H. Gibbons says. He suggests that the federal government sponsor more research on the factory manufacture of housing and try to establish a national code that would allow such housing throughout the United States.
There is no question that, whether from domestic or overseas producers, more factory-manufactured housing is on the way. Sweden's industrialized-housing industry--the "most highly developed in the world," the OTA report notes--is doing a good business exporting homes to European nations, the Middle East and North Africa. Next on the agenda: the American market.