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prefab vs traditional build

Is Prefab Better Than Traditional Building?

By Tobias RobertsRise Writer
Jan 13, 2020

In the past, prefab construction was usually associated with mobile homes. However, as interest in sustainable home construction gains traction, prefab homes continue to evolve from their humble beginnings. When deciding between prefab and traditional building, there is no simple answer to the question: "Which is best?" As with most sustainability decisions we take, the best option will depend on your particular circumstance. This article takes an in-depth look at the benefits and drawbacks of prefab and traditional homes. This analysis will help you make an educated decision regarding which type of residence will be best for you.

prefab house
Photo Credit: Phoenix Haus

How Do Prefab Homes Work?

Prefab homes are a type of specialist dwelling manufactured off-site. Whereas traditional building focuses on shipping 2x4s, plywood, and dozens of other building materials to the site where the home will be located, prefab builders purchase materials in bulk and build homes in a central warehouse. Once completed, manufacturers ship the finished house to the building site.

In most cases, the only on-site construction associated with prefab buildings is the home foundation. Once the foundation is completed, the home ships to the site. With the help of a crane, the home is then lifted and secured to the foundation. Depending on the builder, some prefab homes come finished and turnkey. The building shell is completed in a warehouse and shipped to the site in other cases. The interior finishes are then completed on-site.

Prefabricated homes, often referred to as prefab homes or simply prefabs, are specialist dwelling types of prefabricated buildings manufactured off-site in advance, usually in standard sections that can be quickly shipped and assembled. According to a recent article by the Washington Post, "despite having been around for decades, prefab or modular homes made up just 2 percent of new single-family houses in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau."

What's The Difference Between Prefab Homes And Stick-Built Homes?

Some homeowners mistakenly believe that prefab homes and stick-built homes differ mainly in the type of materials used in the construction process. However, stick-built and prefab structures can use different building materials, methodologies, and technologies. The main difference is related to how and where the home is built. Stick-built homes refer to a home that is constructed entirely or primarily on-site. In contrast, prefab homes are built in factories or warehouses before shipping to the house site.

The name "stick-built" comes from the most common construction method, referring to the superstructure of the walls and roof made from posts and beams. While most stick-built homes are made from 2x4s, metal posts and poles are common. Many prefab or modular homes also use 2x4 post and beam structures. However, other prefab home examples include insulated concrete formspanelized homes, and structural insulated panels (SIPs).

tiny home factory
Photo Credit: Collective Carpentry

How Long Do Prefabs Last vs. Old Homes?

The durability of prefab and traditional homes largely depends on the building company. Unfortunately, as the housing market grows increasingly competitive, many builders attempt to cut costs with shoddy building materials and practices, resulting in fewer permanent homes. A traditional home built to passive house standards with a super-tight building envelope and high-performance insulation will most likely last a lifetime. Similarly, a prefab homemade from structural insulated panels could also be highly sturdy and durable.

However, one advantage to prefab homes is that due to the shipping process, most prefab and modular builders add an extra focus on durability. The homes built in factories and warehouses need to be sufficiently structurally sound to withstand the movement associated with shipping and being lifted by a crane onto a standing foundation. Prefab builders want to avoid the extra costs of having to fix on-site a prefab home that fractured or cracked during the shipping and mounting process. Thus, most prefab homes will be exceptionally structurally sound with a motivated focus on rigorously tight building envelopes.

construction waste
Photo Credit: Greater Sudbury

Are Prefabs Made From High-Quality Materials?

Again, it depends. Most prefab builders can save costs on materials through bulk purchasing. Also, the meticulous factory building process helps companies drastically cut down on construction waste and debris, which is an enormous cost. In 2017 alone, the construction industry accounted for over 20 million tons of construction and demolition waste. Besides occupying a tremendous amount of landfill space, this waste is an added cost that builders must assume.

Because prefab homes are more efficient in building materials, they can often afford to invest in higher quality resources and supplies. The choice of better building materials depends on the individual contractor. However, homeowners interested in healthy and sustainable homes might find prefab builders who focus on low-VOC building materials, bamboo plywood, and FSC-certified wood without significantly increasing the final price of the house.

prefab laneway
Completed prefab MODCUBE laneway home by Synthesis Design

How Much Do Prefabs Cost vs. Traditional Homes?

One of the most oft-cited advantages of prefab homes is that they are widely considered less expensive than stick-built homes. The efficiency in resource and material use alongside mass-production models with factory-built homes makes them more affordable. Nonetheless, it is crucial to recognize that there can be hidden costs associated with the final home cost.

Homeowners interested in prefab homes should ensure that the quoted price includes delivery and crane fees. Also, if you are purchasing an unfinished prefab home, getting a detailed quote on the complete turnkey product is necessary. A finalized quote is critical, primarily if you work with different contractors. Of course, prefab homes also don't include the cost of land. In some areas, the value of a property can easily be equal to or even higher than the price of the home itself.

In general, however, homeowners can expect to pay between $180 and $220 per square foot for prefab homes. This amount usually includes all interior fixtures and amenities. Some stick-built homes are comparative in price and might even be cheaper. Home Advisor finds that the average price for stick-built dwellings in 2019 was just $150 per square foot. However, customized stick-built homes can be increasingly expensive, costing between $800 and $1,000 per square foot.

Do Prefab Homes Lose Value Faster Than Traditional Homes?

Numerous factors will determine the resale value of any home. The oft-repeated mantra of the real estate industry, "location, location, location," is a testament to the fact that the type of construction is often less important than where your home is located. Nonetheless, some types of prefab homes might be harder to sell down the road due to the overwhelming popularity of customized stick-built homes.

Many prefab builders are today offering customization building plans. However, there is still a stigma around these homes that they are mass-produced, cooking cutter-style in appearance. A fully-customized stick-built home will probably cost you significantly more upfront, though it could hold a higher resale value down the road. As more homeowners begin to appreciate the sustainability benefits of prefab homes, their resale value may continue to rise.

So, is prefab better than traditional building? The answer, of course, is that it depends on several different aspects and features that relate to your particular context and situation. Finding a home contractor with experience in sustainability building experience is by far the most critical part of the decision-making process.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2022-02-23T20:48:52+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.