Chicago's architectural innovations are world renowned. But before Burnham, steel, and skyscrapers, a wooden structure that was built in 1833 may have introduced an idea just as influential. The "balloon frame" buildout of St. Mary's Church, utilizing wooden boards held together by newly mass-produced nails, became a model for construction worldwide that inspired some of the first prefab buildings in the country. The concept (which has alternately been attributed to other builders and designers) was derided at the time; the name was an insult, suggesting it would tumble in a stiff breeze.
Nearly two centuries later, architect Jeffrey Sommers of Square Root Architecture + Design, also wants to revolutionize the way homes are built in Chicago, with a similar eye towards large-scale shift in building and manufacturing. And he's also fighting an uphill battle. Four years ago, his green C3 prefab home, short for "Cube, Cut, Copy," manufactured in an Indiana factory and trucked on site to a lot in the city's west side just two-and-a-half miles west of St. Mary's original location, became Chicago's first prefab modular house. Sommers has worked to translate that success into something bigger, including a factory for prefab manufacturing the city. But his struggles to make a long-time dream a city-sanctioned reality suggests the difficulties that come with such a fundamental shift, from on-site to factory-built.
The original C3 prefab, Chicago's first prefab home. Photos via Square Root Architecture.
"People see prefab translate into higher quality, better energy performance, and ideally, better cost control," says the 45-year-old architect. "In the end, that's what consumers want. My hope is that municipalities will have no choice but to adapt to off-site construction."
Sommers first gravitated towards prefab construction—assembling home components at a central manufacturing center, then transporting the pieces to be put together at a building site—during the early days of his Chicago-based firm, Square Root Architecture. Clients in the late 2000s were asking for green features such as solar panels and better insulation, and Sommers noticed the high costs involved in renovating the city's older building stock. The painstaking process of adding on to older building, a process he calls "forensic architecture," suggested that while prefab may not always be cheaper, it would standardize and simplify the process, while offering a sustainable, well-designed place to live.
"People think prefab is the holy grail of providing higher quality as a much lower cost," says Sommers. "The reality is, having done it for 10 years now, that prefab provides more quality and a more predictable product. We need to get to the point where we're following how other products are built. How can we build a home like an iPhone? We keep using the same processes for home construction, and it's just not evolving like other manufacturing processes have."
Sommers hit on a core issue that has prevented generations of prefab proselytizers, from Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed a line of American System-Built homes between 1912-1916, to modern companies such as Blu Homes: scale. Prefab construction may work in some cases, such as utilitarian military facilities, but can be cost-prohibitive for one-off residential projects. For an assembly line-like system of home building to bend the cost curve, like any other product, it needs to be done in mass quantities. City building authorities also rarely have a process in place to examine offsite production of homes, another complication that's foiled previous prefab attempts.
Sommers still believes Chicago can be the right place for a prefab factory. He's in talks with developers, designers, and city government to try and secure a facility and set up the necessary inspection system to break ground. While he's recently moved downstate to Springfield with his family, and is in early discussions to develop a potential Net-Zero energy prefab village near the state capital, he still commutes to the city via Amtrak to pursue his passion project. He envisions building a plant that would function like a car manufacturing facility, sourcing parts from regional suppliers to create high-performance homes. There's always a need for homes that place design at the forefront; the fact that only 3 to 4 percent of buildings in America are made off-site isn't a discouragement, it's a business opportunity.
"My heart is in Chicago," he says. "It's the perfect town to do it in. It's a nice blend of blue and white collar, the technology and transportation are there, and it's the center of the nation. It would be an ideal place for a manufacturing facility. And there's a real need for affordable housing. The middle 60 percent of our population really needs quality, market rate housing."