Yesterday Bill had a post regarding a comment from Kathleen Fasanella of the Fashion-Incubator blog. In her comment Kathleen mentions "… it remains an impossibility to to construct a home in China and import it here."
Really? I’m not so sure about that.
Earlier today I had the opportunity to visit a cousin in Virginia who is renovating a 1930’s era home. I was rather surprised to learn that this was a "Sears home"… back in the early part of the century Sears used to sell mail order homes. Not pre-fab… these were complete homes created of pre-measured and pre-cut wood kits. Two stories and a basement, four bedrooms, and unique floor designs. Almost 100,000 homes were "mailed", there were over 1,000 customization options, and the lead time was less than three months. In 1930.
Several decades later there was the transition to the traditional box mobile home, but pre-fab homes have come a long way since then. The stigma of "flamingo hiltons" (and other less flattering terms that I won’t repeat here) is wearing off, and there are now some very spectacular and modern designs. The pre-fab revolution has been most notable overseas, especially in Sweden where over 90% of new homes are pre-fab. Of course the "flat pack" genius of Ikea is involved, and has created 45 entire communities of pre-fab homes. Japan has also embraced pre-fab homes, with several companies churning them out of fully-automated factories. And even with that capacity, Japan still imports over 40% of its pre-fab homes from Canada.
Last June we blogged about Toyota Home, the pre-fab home unit of Toyota. They were beginning to apply TPS methods to drive waste out of the homebuilding process, and they are looking to expand into overseas markets. Is anyone starting to get a sense of deja vu? Perhaps from back in the 1970’s when Toyota started to sell the first Corolla’s in the U.S. and we thought the poor quality, their increased cost from having to import steel, and cost of shipping a couple thousand pounds of steel would keep American automakers safe? Except this time Toyota has honed their quality methods to almost perfection and we know their passion for reducing waste creates a cost structure that more than offsets shipping… even before they decide to build plants closer to their customer. The Lean Construction Institute here in the U.S. is also working on streamlining the homebuilding process.
I wouldn’t be surprised if twenty years from now it is common to buy distinctive new homes over the internet from global home companies, and the customized pre-fab home is delivered and installed a week later. We’ve already demonstrated that we can build complete homes in under four hours. Will this future also create new problems, like landfills full of last year’s model homes? I don’t know. But I do know that if Toyota is involved, it is something we should keep an eye on.