Some Assembly Required

A new generation of tech-savvy architects is bringing premium-quality, prefabricated housing to the masses.

  1. At the Britco factory in Agassiz, British Columbia, a few hours east of Vancouver at the mist-enshrouded foot of the Cascade Range, they build houses a little differently. Plumbers, electricians, and roofers don’t come to the house. The house, rolling down an assembly line on casters, comes to them.

    Inside a cavernous hangar where the pneumatic thwack! thwack! thwack! of nail guns mixes with the drone of jigsaws, Britco produces as many as 600 modular structures a year—everything from houses and banks to classrooms and McDonald’s restaurants. The company calls them “factory-built buildings.” Brochures in the lobby suggest a takeout-pizza approach to construction: “Need Space Fast?” and “We Deliver Anywhere.”

    The job that’s now moving down the 23-station line, director of sales Mike Ridley explains to me as we watch hard-hatted workers stuff insulation between joists, is a series of eight-room structures that will house 49 workers each. Destination: the tar-sands region of Alberta, Canada, where oil riggers will live in these cheap, portable dwellings for several months before both men and modular buildings head to the next job.

    Watching the houses move down the line with us is Michelle Kaufmann, an architect from San Francisco. A leading light of the prefab movement, Kaufmann, 37, is here to strategize with Britco execs about increasing production of her Glidehouse, a sleekly modern metal-sided, bamboo-floored, glass-fronted, energy-efficient modular dwelling named for the...

Originally published in Wired, January 2006