By: Aaron Neal
Prefabrication has been a buzzword in the field of Architecture for quite some time now. What does it actually mean though? At first glance, the work prefabrication means to create something off-site so that only minor assembly is needed on site. In Ryan E. Smith’s introduction chapter to Prefab Architecture, he brings about an interesting concept about the origin of the words meaning. He states that the definition was entered into Webster Dictionary in 1932. He ponders on the reasoning for the “pre” in prefabricate. This would allude to a time when fabrication occurred on site. He argues that by today’s standard, the process of “prefabrication” in architecture should just be called manufacturing.
When does fabrication off-site officially become “prefabrication”? In essence prefabrication in architecture occurs with pre constructed parts that are fabricated in a factory prior to assembly on the site. One could make the argument that this process already occurs in modern construction practice. In steel framing, all the beams are made to order in a factory before being installed on site by the contractor. Even though these pieces are created off-site they are typically not referred to as prefabrication. Even the individual parts that make up a building – such as the fasteners and finishes – are fabricated off site by their respective manufacturers. This creates some confusion when referring to larger components or modules that are often referred to as prefabricated. If we think about modules being created by multiple parts – a jet engine being composed of many smaller parts – then we can create some sort of system that helps categorize prefabricated architectural elements. A floor for example, is assembled by many pieces – joists, sheathing, and finishes – traditionally, but in a prefabricated system this floor could be constructed as one single panel. In manufacturing these larger architectural elements as singular units, we can safely say these units are prefabricated.