Prefab Housing: An Instrument of Participation?

"When people construct products themselves, from bookshelves to Build-a-Bears, they come to overvalue their (often poorly made) creations. We call this phenomenon the IKEA effect, in honor of the wildly successful Swedish manufacturer whose products typically arrive with some assembly required." -- Harvard Business Review, 2009

Participatory self-build housing follows the same IKEA logic. At CODI, people who have finished building their own houses - brick by brick - are invariably proud of their own creations. They are proud of their saving co-op which allows them to purchase housing materials in bulk and secure the required housing loan. They are proud of their simple 1-story houses of which they have plastered them with their very own hands.

But, unlike the quick assembly process of IKEA, the folks who are engaging in self-build housing usually earn their pride through a rather slow and deliberate process of traditional construction. Sometimes the slowness helps consolidate the unruly members of the community; they become better at arguing and solving problems together. Other times however, the slowness of traditional construction offers little hope and saps up their energy; especially for communities with a large portion of the population working the regular 9-5 shifts.

Could prefab building and its component be made so as to generate community participation?

Let's go back to the year 1968; back when the Beatles had just release the White Album and the French students were making revolution in the streets of Paris.

The administrators at a medical university in Brussels had just finished presenting a paper model of a new dormitory to its student body. The students were not satisfied with what they saw. They wanted more freedom and expression in their environment. Like their French counterparts in the streets of Paris, they want to actually participate in the decision making process. They don't want to just say 'yes' or 'no' to the white architectural model in front of them.

Seeing their reactions, the administrator had made compromises with the students; they allowed a young architect named Lucien Kroll - selected by the students - to be the architect in charge of three new student dormitories.

Kroll decided to build the base infrastructure - structure and plumbing - as a platform for the students to do their own wall infilling; using prefabricated modular panels and windows.

The students loved it. They filled the building with multi-levels mezzanine, exterior and interior stairs mazes, and complex exterior panels within a very short period of time. Since the partitions are light-weighted; they could be rearranged when new changes warrant them to. They were flexible. This procedure - though complex and chaotic in appearance - had a precise organizational structure underlining it.

"We based our design on a coordinating module, creating a scotch grid with 10 and 20 cm zones running in both directions in plan. Structural members and mechanical equipment find their place in the 20 cm and the partitions in the 10 cm zones. All windows are multiples of 30 cm with their frames. They fit neatly with the partitions," said Lucian Kroll.

Near the completion of the three dormitory buildings - during the heat of summer school holiday - the university administrator mysteriously fired Kroll.

"Fearing the loss of authority, the UCL administration choose a moment when the students were away to fire Kroll, accusing him of practicing anarchist architecture." (2)

As in the case of the medical dormitory in Brussels, sometimes the construction has to be both participatory and flexible. This is especially crucial with squatter communities living on land under fire from the landowner. The system has to be flexible because the way things work in the community, designing collectively is always an iterative process. You don't just design it and build it according to the blueprints; you design it, build it; come back to the meeting room; redesign it again for the next set of housing then build it again.

With the old system of brick and concrete block construction, very little change could be made to the building once they have been installed. With light-weight prefab panels, however, readjustment could be made by the folks in the community - folks with little construction knowledge.

A look back at American history shows us that quick prefab construction system not only built communities - it built an entire nation of squatters. The United States of America is indeed a nation of squatters - the pilgrims and cowboys; they all squatted on the land belonging to the American Indians.

The squatters used light-weight balloon framing with skinny wood studs - a lightweight "prefab" material - so that a man and a boy can quickly finish off a house within a week of work.

The American cowboys gained enormous territories in western America - they build cities after cities; planting their safe houses and saloons with the balloon framing. Had the cowboys were slowly building their cities brick-by-brick, their "Indian" landlords would have easily showered them with arrows and evicted them back to Europe.

It's a war of position in a literal sense. It was a kind of trench warfare where each new emerging city served as trenches for the new squatters.

In Thailand, a community usually gains its strength and solidarity when its members have worked together pass a certain threshold of hours - say 10,000 collective hours. These could be done by organizing saving groups; talking about the reconstruction plan or building the houses together. In most communities, the first part is the most time consuming. Getting together to work on a saving group usually take up most of the 10,000 hours time. Working on an agreeable plan, surprisingly, takes only a few days or a few hours in some cases. So we are now left with the last hurdle of the process - the construction itself.

Using traditional construction system would sure to increase the number of hours that the community must work and do things together. So shouldn't traditional construction system - which requires longer participation time - be our system of choice?

How many hours of participation are necessary to bring together a community? Would 16,000 combined hours of collective participation create a significantly tighter community than say 10,000 combined hours of participation?

These are research questions that require some study. Perhaps it's similar to being a rock guitarist. Most rockers would agree that when you have practiced your "riffs" beyond a certain threshold of hours, the additional hours you put in would simply confirm the strength of your prowess on the fret board. It would not fundamentally change the way you play the guitar - your attitude and expression.

The "attitude" of a particular community is usually well set during the first and longest phase of community formation: the creation of the saving group. It is in this period that the folks within the community get to share their thoughts and aspirations and trust.

At CODI, only about 8% of its 745 projects are actually built by the folks within their own communities; the rest of the people hired outside contractors to build their houses. Aside from this, the foundation and structures of the houses - and roofs - are almost always done by outside contractors. So we are usually left with the wall infill portion of the housing which most often involves heavy materials like bricks or concrete blocks.

These wall materials, including the roof, could be replaced by a more modern light-weight construction system that demands less construction skills; so more people could participate in reshaping of their own community.

But as of now, there's no such thing as an IKEA equivalent of prefab housing. Most prefab housing projects are either cheap turn-key projects with little selections for the users, or expensive turn-key projects with more selections and options. There's no such thing as a collection of light-weight kits where users can bring their own trucks, choose their own wall panels, and go home to assemble their own bedroom additions.

In the US, however, companies like the Home Depot and Lowe's are interestingly selling semi-prefab housing components - wall framing, roof truss, doors, windows, bathrooms, and whole kitchens - in a very IKEA-like fashion. Blue collar workers, middle-class school teachers, college professors, software programmers, plumbers, and professional carpenters arrive with their pickup trucks to buy roof truss and walls for their home additions.

These semi-prefab building components - the stud construction system - require very little construction skills when compared with the traditional bricks and plaster construction. If these semi-prefab systems could be made available in Third World countries along with a network of co-ops that owns and sell these materials, we could be witnessing a totally new breed of participatory housing movement. The introduction of a new instrument into an old environment could be unprecedented.

The emergence of the electric guitars gave rise to multitudes of independent garage bands - and rock music itself. These small garage bands started to flourish in an age where big bands with a Sinatra face still owned the show. The garage bands not only brought extinction to those mammoth bands and orchestras, they changed the entire rules of the game. Just imagine the emergence of the Beatles, the Stones, and the Jimi Hendrix of participatory housing movement.

Prefab housing should be an instrument that provides more, not less participation.

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References

(1) Michael I. Norton, The IKEA Effect: When Labor Leads to Love, Harvard Business Review, 2009

(2) C. Richard Hatch, UCL Zone Sociale Woluwe-St. Lambert, The Scope of Social Architecture, p.166