While we may still be reeling from an economic crisis caused in part by a burst housing bubble, the conventional wisdom among experts and everyday Americans alike is that owning a home remains a great investment. Renting an apartment or house is a great idea for a while, but if it continues for years, you're just throwing money away with nothing to show for it.
However, no one says the home you own has to be boring. Having a house doesn't have to mean owning some bland, inoffensive, gray-and-beige two-story box that looks identical to everything else on your street. Modern architecture has become increasingly popular, especially among younger homeowners. And now, thanks to advances in prefabrication, they're more accessible than ever.
Prefabricated homes, also called prefab or modular homes, have been around for decades. They're built in sections at a factory, then shipped to your neighborhood and assembled on-site by local contractors. This stands in contrast to most homes, which are created on-site from the ground up by builders.
While most people probably tend to think of those small, cheap-looking rectangular homes that are advertised on the highways outside major cities, lately, designers have been using some new prefabrication techniques to build cool and unique modern houses. They can feature sleek designs with zany colors, mixtures of metal, wood and glass and innovative uses of space. And besides having interesting designs, many modern prefab homes are also very "green" and are created to have a low impact on the planet.
We'll look at some cool concepts for homes that use prefab techniques, as well as existing modern homes that have garnered attention from all over the world. These aren't your grandfather's prefab houses!
Why stack apartment units on top of one another when you can weave them together? In Denver, architects have proposed a mixed-use development that consists of prefabricated units built at a factory, which are hoisted into place on-site and integrated together like strands in a potholder loom.
Called Weave Urban Housing, the project boasts several advantages over more traditional, flat-front apartment buildings -- besides just looking cool, of course. The woven structure of the units creates deep overhangs that create shade while allowing more natural daylight in. The units are constructed out of polymer composites, lightweight concrete slabs, and insulated, argon-filled windowpanes.
The Weave complex is interesting because the building would be a mix of different-sized apartment units. Arranged in the grid pattern, units could be one or two bays in width and one or two levels in height. The fact that they're made using prefabrication techniques allows for greater build precision and faster construction time.
The concept has 160 apartment units plus parking and retail. Time will tell if the concept becomes reality, but it's definitely a unique way of putting multiple units together.
Next up: Everyone loves a good rooftop view. So why can't you live there? We'll look at a clever idea for housing that fits atop existing buildings.
There's modular housing, and then there's this.
The LoftCube is a "mobile living unit" that is placed on top of rooftops and can be moved around at will. Imagine a house that can be picked up and moved wherever you want with a crane or a helicopter, and you've got the LoftCube. Can't afford to buy a house or a condo in New York City? Why not put your cube on top of an existing building? Suddenly, you've got a rooftop view on the cheap.
Created by German furniture designer Werner Aisslinger, the LoftCube concept is a compact, rectangular penthouse with windows on each side. They're between 400 and 600 square feet in size, so they're small, but that helps them fit just about anywhere.
Okay, it's pretty cool. But it also sounds like an unrealistic concept, right? Wrong. Since the design was unveiled in 2004, prefab LoftCubes have popped up in gardens and yes, even on rooftops, across the world. One homeowner has a LoftCube installed just north of Beirut with a 360-degree view of the Mediterranean Sea. There are environmental advantages to the LoftCube, too. Since it's built ahead of time and transported all at once, there are fewer waste materials and carbon emissions from shipping.
In this next section, we'll journey down to Austin, Texas, to look at a new and innovative technique for building modern prefab houses.
Ma Modular Homes
Not all prefab modern homes have to have way-out-there designs and huge price tags. Down in Austin, the food truck-loving, live music capital of the world, builder KDRB have created eco-friendly prefab modern homes that cost about half as much others on the market.
The houses are called Ma modular homes. The word "ma" comes from a Japanese word that means consciousness of space, or "the serene space in-between." Despite the fancy name, the houses themselves feature pretty down-to-earth construction techniques. They have reflective rooftops, energy efficient windows, bamboo floors and additional "green" features like solar panels and rain water collectors.
The focus here is affordability. Standard Ma homes can be built for about $140 per square foot, which greatly undercuts a lot of other modern homes out there. They're far from plain looking, too. Many of the Ma homes include features like wall-sized windowpanes, wood-paneled walls, huge outdoor decks and rectangular designs.
Ma homes prove that you don't have to be a millionaire to have a cool-looking, sustainable modern house. And now that they're available in 48 states, Ma may just bring modern prefab to the masses.
Ever consider living in a shipping container? It's more appealing than you might think!
Shipping Container-style Houses
An emerging trend in the world of prefab houses is to build them out of old shipping containers. While that may seem strange at first, if you really think about it, it's a clever idea.
Most modern homes are all about efficiently using space and being good to the environment. Shipping containers are shaped perfectly for modular assembly, and are large enough to accommodate whatever interior space is needed. Making homes out of shipping containers is a great recycling method, and they have their own strengths as well. Their tough metal construction is resistant to termites, weather, fire and mold.
But if you're picturing yourself eating breakfast in some dark, rusty old container that was once used to ship cars around, think again. For example, one modern home in Redondo Beach, Calif., is made of eight shipping containers and some traditional materials to create a near-perfect beachside condo. If you want to go smaller and more portable, a Canadian company has built a shipping container-based, 480-square foot cabin that can be shipped just about anywhere via truck, rail or ship.
As urban space becomes increasingly limited in some cities, we can expect to see innovative uses of space like these appear more and more.
You've already considered living in a shipping container, right? Then why not live in a billboard?
Billboard Modular Housing
As you've probably picked up by now, much of what goes into designing modern prefab housing has to do with making use of limited spaces and lowering the impact on the environment. The idea isn't to sprawl and be wasteful, but to utilize what is already there. In that vein, here's a pretty extreme idea: houses built into billboards.
There are more than half a million billboards scattered across the United States. Dallas-based architecture firm Nocturnal Design Lab has a concept called Aeroform that turns those billboards into affordable houses that can be sent to rural areas for low-cost living.
The homes are built in part from recycled old billboards and then installed on existing ones. They have a curvaceous shell on the outside designed to protect the homeowner from the sun and wind. Like all prefab homes, they're built somewhere else and transported onsite, and then attached to the billboard with the aid of a crane. However, unlike most prefab homes, the billboard houses are designed with interior spaces already in place.
It's quite green, too; vented windows on either side allow natural light to flood in, and its very placement on an existing billboard cuts down on the use of raw materials.
Aeroform represents a radical approach to occupying existing spaces within a city and in rural areas. While not all prefab modern homes are this extreme, they represent an increasingly popular philosophy on how to build living spaces that have minimal impact -- and look pretty cool, too.
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Author's Note: 5 Cool Prefab Housing Ideas
I count myself as a huge fan of modern architecture, especially modern houses. I live near a neighborhood full of prefabricated modern homes, all of which feature design cues similar to the ones on this list. While I understand that they don't appeal to everyone, I do like seeing them spring up more and more. After all, why should houses be so boring?
- Arends, Brett. "10 Reasons to Buy a Home." The Wall Street Journal. Sept. 16, 2010. (June 19, 2012) http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703376504575492023471133674.html
- Dornob. "New Green Prefab Idea: 500K Billboards as Modular Housing." Dornob.com. (June 19, 2012) http://dornob.com/new-green-prefab-idea-500k-billboards-as-modular-housing/
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- Howard, Brian Clark. "Amazing Homes and Offices Built from Shipping Containers." DailyGreen.com. (June 19, 2012) http://www.thedailygreen.com/green-homes/latest/shipping-container-homes-460309
- Laylin, Taffine. "Sleek Prefab LoftCube in Lebanon is the Ultimate Home for Nomads." GreenProphet.com. Feb. 22, 2012. (June 19, 2012) http://www.greenprophet.com/2012/02/prefab-loft-cube-lebanon/
- Meridian 105 Architecture. "Weave Urban Housing." Meridian106.com. (June 19, 2012) http://www.meridian105.com/projectweave.html
- Stamp, Jimmy. "Ma-dular building in Austin." Dwell.com. April 6, 2009. (June 19, 2012) http://www.dwell.com/articles/ma-dular-building-in-austin.html