The Downfalls of Prefab Design

  • 25 Feb 2013
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Sky City is planned to be the world’s tallest skyscraper, constructed entirely through pre-fab.

Prefabricated design has come to be known as a fast, green, and cost-efficient way to create buildings. Although this technique has most prominently been used with small residential structures, it’s now taken a turn towards greater, larger projects. With towers and skyscrapers now in the works (and, in some cases, going up in as little as six days), pre-fab begs the question: is it really safe? Does quick production time lead to instability, making prefabricated buildings more likely to collapse?

Read more after the break.

Courtesy of Daquella manera

Prefabrication has some advantages: it is typically cheaper to build than on-site construction and it usually takes less time for construction to be complete. Pre-fab structures are very sustainable because they reduce the amount of waste produced.

Courtesy of BAKOKO

However, prefabrication can have its disadvantages. First of all, there can be more risk with the prefabrication technique than in traditional construction: since the majority of the large building components are constructed off-site, there is a great amount of trust given to the manufacturer to produce precisely what is needed. One single error can eventually put the entire building in danger.

Courtesy of The Miami Herald

A simple mistake may have been the cause of a recent collapse of a parking garage in Miami, Florida. This parking garage, just like many of its kind, was created with prefabricated beams. The heavy beams, columns, and floor plans needed to be perfectly aligned and constructed for it to stand up. However, a disaster occurred: the floor slabs at one section of the garage disconnected and fell down, creating a domino effect of destruction.

Although the precise cause of the incident is still unknown, investigators believe that it was a construction error and not a design fault.

It will take a long time to decipher the exact cause of failure in the Miami garage because there is a lot of room for mistakes to occur in the pre-fab process, especially once the pieces arrive on site. When they arrive, they are attached and bolted together. Workers are constructing under an intense time limit in order to complete the task quickly, and this can lead to a higher potential of mistakes being made compared to traditional on-site methods not typically associated with rapid completion times.

Courtesy of BAKOKO

Moreover, every site is unique and has its own individual characteristics and challenges; a prototype building for all sites does not exist. Prefabricated buildings, designed for efficiency, may appear ideal in theory, but they lack personalization and detail. By creating pieces off-site instead of on-site, there exists a disconnect between the architect and the land itself.

Courtesy of BAKOKO

In conclusion, pre-fabrication has plenty of advantages – particularly if you live by the adage that “time is money” since it promises lower construction cost, a quicker schedule, and less waste. However, when human safety is concerned, quality cannot be sacrificed for efficiency (not to mention that, if, in the name of safety, any changes do need to be made to prefabricated materials once they arrive on site, it is an expensive and time-consuming  fix). As pre-fabrication continues to boom, we must take the utmost care to ensure its quality – just as we do with traditional construction – or else all the time and money gained will result in a very real, human cost.

via The IndependentThe New York TimesThe Miami Herald, and Green Diary.
Images via Daquella manera and BAKOKO, licensed through Creative Commons.

Cite: Wronski, Lisa. "The Downfalls of Prefab Design" 25 Feb 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 22 May 2015. <>
  • Michael F.

    I think it should be noted that cost-efficiency of pre-fab is heavily dependent on regional availability and the scale of building. There are certainly available options to reducing costs in residential construction, but its not always cheaper than having a carpenter/contractor come out and frame up a simple stud-wall assembly.

  • Patrick

    I love this blog, but this article is awfully propagandistic, one-sided, and lacking in evidence for its claims.

  • Derek Ellison

    There is very little meat to this article. Like Patrick said, it is seemingly one-sided.

    I find it strange that the main argument given is that of the safety of off-site fabrication done in a controlled environment, with the possibility of greater quality control, and no mention of short-comings of onsite construction.

    While there are legitimate issues that prefabricated architecture faces, this article does not address them with much merit.

  • John

    This is an odd article…one-sided and scant on evidence while heavy on conjecture. The architect IS the connection between the land and the building being prefabricated. I would wager that safety in a fabrication facility is much better than at a job-site for workers as well. Perhaps we might wildly speculate less in blogs?

  • Pierre

    Cool subject, but IMHO, these arguments, that are constantly re-used to motivate the use of prefab, are a little off…

    1. TIME
    It’s not REALLY time efficient: the pre-fab elements need to be built one way or another, whether on site or off. Delays are still applicable. The only true time difference is time spent ‘on-site’.

    2. MONEY
    In my region, the only reason why pre-fab is cheaper is because the workers in factories are paid less than on-site workers. The difference is due to insurance and various worker certification not needed in factories. It’s only a matter of time before these things evolve….

    I’ve seen SOME quality pre-fab buildings, but in most cases I feel the architectural design is very…. let’s say ‘off’. The best example for this is ‘Sky City’. IMHO it is a HORRIBLE piece of architecture and it says quite a bit on humanity that this achievement (biggest piece of built environment made by man) is so… bleh !

    IMHO, Time and Money aren’t the most important thing when pushing our boundaries.

  • François

    Pre-fab is cheaper for really huge building using a LOT of time the same element. Otherwise the transportation cost (at least in France) kills the savings for the construction…

  • Rich

    This is the most shortsighted article i’ve read on this site. No mention that the same stated safety drawbacks with prefab are equally possible with on-site construction…

  • Kirkw

    “Although this technique has most prominently been used with small residential structures, it’s now taken a turn towards greater, larger projects”

    Really? Is the author not familiar with the German WBS70 (and similar) building methods? The so called Plattenbauten account for almost all of East Germany’s post 1960 housing construction. We’re talking about 1.5 million units and entire city districts (Neubaugebiete). Pre-fabrication is neither particularly new, nor has it been historically limited to small residential structures.

  • Steven

    Terrible article, terrible writing.

    “there is a great amount of trust given to the manufacturer to produce precisely what is needed. One single error can eventually put the entire building in danger.”

    How does this differ from on-site construction?

  • Maria

    I just have to laugh at this article. It was written by two neuron Architect.