ONARCHITECTURE- Pre-fab-ulous? Builder does it the Swedish way

The architectural dream of churning out factory-built houses the way Henry Ford churned out Model-Ts is nothing new. In fact, the curator of Assembly Required: Contemporary Prefabricated Houses, a show in Richmond last year, described the "prefab" house as "modern architecture's oldest new idea." 

Indeed, Sears, Roebuck & Co. started its Houses by Mail program in 1908, and in the 1920s Buckminster Fuller introduced the futuristic precursor to his geodesic dome. Unfortunately (or fortunately for some), factory-built house designs, at least in America, seem not to have escaped the architect's studio, and when they did, it was to create what Americans have learned to associate with the term "prefabrication"– double-wides, or the cheap manufactured contraptions seen sailing down interstates behind "oversize load" signs. 

In the last decade, so-called modular and panelized houses have gained wider acceptance. Indeed, we've chronicled their development in these pages, showcasing the UVA architecture department's successful ecoMod project, the growing use of factory-built SIPS panels, and most recently a factory-built ThermaSteel house ["Man of steel: Scouten touts new technology," March 8]. 

However, despite the success of these technologies, the stigma associated with prefab houses persists.

For example, when architect Alan Scouten built his house in Ivy of ThermaSteel, a combination of steel and styrofoam that has proven strong enough to withstand hurricane winds and provides superior insulation, a neighbor attempted to sue him because he believed the house was going to lower property values.

According to Swedish builder Per Sjolinder, that prejudice against prefab houses is uniquely American. In countries like Sweden and Japan, he says, prefabrication is the rule, not the exception. 

"In Sweden, we have been building prefab houses on a large scale for 75 years, and today over 90 percent of all homes in the country are put together in a factory," Sjolinder says, adding that factory-built houses have become a way to increase energy efficiency in a cold climate and lower housing prices in a country of high labor costs. 

Indeed, as far back as 1985, The New York Times was touting Swedish mastery of the prefab house. At a development in the Hamptons, 50 Swedish "kit" houses went up in as many days, 1/50 of the time needed to build comparable stick-built houses. The combination of craftsmanship and technology impressed even a US government technology expert.

"The Swedes have basically taken the building craftsman and given him a lot of high-technology equipment,'' Henry C. Kelly, a senior associate in the Office of Technological Assessment, told the Times. ''Essentially, they are hand-building a house, but doing it with high technology in a factory so they can do it quickly. There's no question about the quality.'' 

On a beautiful hillside in Ivy, Sjolinder and his company, EuroHomes USA, are building two model houses– one 2,300 square feet and the other a whopping 6,200 square feet– that he hopes will showcase the best of what Swedish (and American, he points out) innovation has to offer. In addition, the ambitious Swede wants to create America's first prefab factory operation building Swedish "closed-wall" panel houses. Eventually, Sjolinder says, he hopes to produce 500 to 1,000 homes a year.

As Sjolinder explains, closed-wall systems are much different from the panelized or modular construction most Americans are familiar with. In addition to being completely customized, the walls of both houses arrive with everything in them: windows, doors, electric and plumbing hook-ups, switches, hardware, any electronics, and even the exterior wall covering. Sjolinder says that once the design and components of a wall are chosen, 35 to 40 of them can be built in his factory in several hours, enough to construct the shell of his 2,300-square-foot model, which took only a day to raise.

Touring the unfinished houses, it's virtually impossible to tell their components were manufactured in a factory. In fact, on close inspection, the walls reveal innovative details and materials. For example, instead of the wood shims normally found around a door casing to make it square, a standard practice in stick-built construction, adjustable bolts hidden in the door casing secure it to the frame, making it easier to adjust if the door becomes unaligned. Window sills can never rot because they are polished stone, and the Swedish-made triple-pane windows open and flip around ingeniously.

And, of course, since the electric and plumbing are already installed (inspections for both take place before the wall panels are delivered), there's minimal subcontracting work involved. Still, Sjolinder points out that craftsmen are important to the process of piecing the house together and adding various details.

We also took note of the wall construction, which at first looked like a standard stick-built wall. Apparently, after years of using SIPS panel and other similar technologies, which have only begun to gain acceptance in the US, the Swedish building industry realized that they actually cause health problems. 

"The houses we made were sometimes so 'tight' that moisture couldn't go anywhere," says Sjolinder. "And so we had problems with mold. People were getting sick. In Sweden, they tried to use machines to suck the air in and out, but they were often very expensive and added an air pressure to the inside of the house that wasn't natural."

The solution, he says, was to create a four-layer "breathing wall" encased in a thick Gore-Tex panel. Functioning much like the popular Gore-Tex jackets athletes love because they're light, warm, and breathable, the walls provide the same kind of superior insulation that SIPS panels do, without trapping air inside the house. In fact, Sjolinder claims it should cost only $125 to $150 a month to heat and cool the 6,200-square-foot house.

From room to room, unusual details continue to catch the eye: drawers that cleverly require a post-toddler's strength to open, hidden latches on doors to keep them from slamming shut, radiant heat beneath the basement floor to control moisture, "whispering floor" panels to block the sound of stomping feet, European-style gas water heaters that heat water as it passes through the system, and a stairway and ceiling posts milled from poplar trees on the property.

At the end of April, Sjolinder says, he'll hold the first of several open houses to showcase his prefab models. 

So might these models finally change American attitudes about factory built houses? If the excitement Sjolinder displays as he shows the house is any indication, it may not matter to him.

"I've been thinking about and planning this for nine years," he says. "And I still think it's fun." 

Per Sjolinder, founder of EuroHomes USA, hopes to change American attitudes toward factory-built houses.