Prefab houses tailored like custom-made suits
19. January

Customers are increasing favouring solutions tailored to their wishes and replicating their own personal style when ordering a house. 

Q-Haus prefab house in Norway

By Maris Tomba

According to the Cluster Manager of the Estonian Wooden Houses Cluster Lauri Kivil, local customers are increasingly more aware of and value materials, functionality and comfort. “Involving an architect has become an elementary step,” Kivil says. “100% standard houses are not often sold in Estonia, even catalogue houses are mostly tailored based on the client’s wishes.”

“Estonian manufacturers produce so-called custom-made suits; flexibility and basing our work on the customer’s wishes is what has given us a competitive advantage abroad,” Kivil assures. “I am glad to say Estonian customers are also starting to realize the actual possibilities of house factories.”

“If the customer has chosen a decent house factory to work with, applying for a building permit from the local government will also be easier,” Kivil says. “As Estonia is so small, the leaders of the market are known all over the country.”

Kivil encourages everyone to get in contact with factories, even for realising more elaborate ideas. “Estonian house manufacturers are open for cooperation, some manufacturers have their own design teams, some cooperate with architecture offices, yet going to a house factory with your own design is also welcomed. Although this is not well known, Estonian factories are generally a perfect fit for manufacturing special projects – they produce all sorts of magical creations for the European market, I see no reason why the same could not be done for Estonia.”

The best home is ensured by cooperating with an architect.

According to AB TEMPT architect Mihkel Urmet, a factory product is generally tailored to the client’s needs. “For some reason people think that when ordering buildings from a house factory, the choice should be made in favour of a standard solution,” Urmet comments and adds, “Based on our experience, if a customer turns to us with a standard solution wishing to make minor adaptations, the process often reveals the actual expectations and needs of the customer and, by the end of the design process, not much may be left of the original design.”

The task of an architect is exactly that – helping the customer in reaching the desired result by determining the desirable rooms, functions and wishes regarding the future home. “It is sort of a gut feeling enabling you to enter the mind of a complete stranger or a family and turn their dreams into spatial solutions,” Urmet explains. “At the same time you also must consider the regulations and thoughts of the local government, as well as keep an eye on and be responsible regarding the whole community the house will be built in.”

“It makes no difference to an architect whether they are designing a so-called plot house or a prefab house,” architect Urmet assures. When dealing with more complex houses, architects work in close cooperation with the house factory to find the best solutions for production, transport and installation. “The biggest difference for architects lies in a systematic control over quality,” Urmet says. “The team working on plots constantly needs us to make visits and this takes a lot of time, yet house factories are in charge of documenting different stages themselves and sending them to us, for example, in form of photos.”

As the production and installation of a prefab house saves a considerable amount of time, architect Urmet advises to use this excess time for a longer and more thorough groundwork. “What is likely to be one of the biggest investments in a person’s life requires a profound project, calculation of up-keeping costs, consideration of convenience of use as well as later market value.”

“Choosing an architect somewhat depends of the technology involved – designing log houses requires a certain experience, while designing prefabricated and modular houses another type of experience,” Urmet says. “The customer should preferably choose an architecture office that believes in wood and has experience in designing prefab houses,” Urmet suggests. “The process is flexible and, in order to reach the best possible solution, it is important to find a professional on the same level as you.”

When first meeting and exchanging formalities with the architect, the matter of cost must also be addressed. If the customer does not hire a separate consultant on budgeting, one option is to ask the architect to take the matter into their hands – by cooperating with house factories, they can comfortably keep a constant eye on the budget, thus, resulting in less surprises for the customer. “Less surprises, less problems, more peace of mind and a more comfortable experience,” Urmet promises.

Standard solutions are altered according to the client’s needs.

The Managing Director of AS Ritsu, manufacturing prefabricated wooden and log houses in Southern-Estonia, Elari Kivisoo also assures the increasingly declining production of 100% standard solution houses.

“The most common practise is for the client to start with one of our standard projects and then alter it to meet their needs. This is generally accepted by factories as they are ready for cooperation.”

A customer ordering a special project house from a house factory will receive all the prefab house advantages, such as minimized consumption of materials, speed and quality. The only difference is that the production is preceded by a design stage. Catalogue projects have typically already been tested by house factories – thus, an architectural project as well as production and building projects have already been compiled. A special project requires compiling a prior architectural project, as well as projects for production and building.

“The estimated time expenditure can be around 6 to 8 weeks,” Kivisoo says. “The time difference of the production process is generally not as big – the production of a previously untried special project can add about 20% to the production time. Production follows a certain procedure; this process is documented and undergoes constant quality control.” Kivisoo adds. “The whole process is conducted in dry and warm indoor conditions where as much of the house is manufactured as possible in order to minimize the time spent on building on the plot.”

The projects for houses manufactured in factories are generally substantially more detailed than for those built on plots, allowing architects and engineers to solve numerous important matters prior to the start of the process; many of these issues cannot be solved on the plot or are missed altogether.

Producing an approximately 100 square feet house takes around two or three days or up to a week, depending on the factory. On the plot, a house the same size takes a day to waterproof and around two weeks to complete the house envelope. When comparing projects similar in their complexity, it does not make a major difference during this stage whether the house being built is a standard or a special project house.

The cost of a plot and a factory house is roughly the same. “When comparing the cost of houses built on fair grounds with all the state taxes paid and works done in the same volume, the prefab house seems to be in the lead,” Kivisoo assures.

A modern home must be functional and economical.

“Today’s customers are demanding and knowledgeable,” Kivisoo characterizes. “The house has to meet the needs of the family or, in other words, be as small as possible and as big as necessary,” Kivisoo says.

“At this point, when considering a good house, we are no longer only considering saving energy. Economic efficiency is closely tied to a healthy living environment and considerations such as materials used and a healthy indoor climate have become extremely relevant,” Kivisoo explains. “It has been a great joy to witness foreign artificial material being replaced by high-quality, local, slowly grown and strong timber.”