A burgeoning U.S. prefab market has much to learn from Japan

The Muji Hut.
The Muji Hut. © Muji


This approach to construction is becoming almost mainstream in many parts of the world—from Sweden to Germany to Australia. But the world leader in prefabricated housing is undoubtedly Japan. More than 15 percent of the nearly 1 million new homes and apartments built there last year were made inside factories, either as stackable modular blocks or panelized walls and floors pieced together on empty lots. Millions of buildings now standing in Japan were prefabricated, and several Japanese companies regularly produce more than 10,000 new prefab homes every year. “They’re leap years ahead of where we’re at today,” Krulak says. 

In the U.S., only a small number of homes are prefabricated (not counting mobile, or “manufactured,” homes). Annually, only about 2 percent of new single-family homes are constructed through modular means, according to the U.S. Census. Even so, off-site construction has long been seen as the grand solution for the mass production of affordable homes. Everyone from Frank Lloyd Wright to Buckminster Fuller has tried to make a go of industrialized housing in the U.S., particularly after World War II, with startups using mothballed aircraft factories for production. Though a few, like the Lustron Corporation, managed to produce a couple thousand prefab homes here and there, none of these ventures achieved their goal of revolutionizing the production of housing.

Krulak thinks prefab’s time may have finally come in the U.S. With advanced robotics, automation, and digital building information technologies—and increasing concern nationwide about the affordability of urban housing—factory-built housing once again seems poised for wider adoption. And a growing number of companies, from small homebuilders to major hoteliers, are betting that prefab is the future. To understand what that future may look like, you have to go to Japan.