Should you purchase plans and stick to traditional construction or a go with a prefab cabin kit? Besides choosing a design, building team, and materials, this is one of the many decisions home builders have to make when building their new space in the outdoors.
We offer both of these options in our product catalog, so we're familiar with scenarios in which either plans or prefab would be the way to go. With that, it's worth noting that we're actually much more pro-plans than pre-fab. We'll explain why below.
To help you make the best choice for your project and budget, we will discuss all the benefits of a prefab house, and what sort of setbacks they can bring as well.
Let's start with defining the term "prefab construction," what exactly does it mean?
The term "prefab construction" covers a lot of ground. But generally, the term covers any structure or building component created, modified, or altered away from the construction site.
Here are some common examples of prefab construction, some simpler and more prevalent in everyday living than others:
Cabinetry - most cabinets are built away from the job site, at the contractor's shop. It's much easier for the contractor to transport the finished cabinets from their shop to the job site. The alternative would be moving all their equipment from one job site to the next.
Residential roof trusses - most roof trusses are built on a large, stationary jig to ensure every truss is identical. Each component is the correct length and cut to the proper roof pitch (slope of the roof) for adequate drainage and snow load requirements.
Urban development - buildings like skyscrapers are typically built using steel columns and beams created at a steel mill or factory. The large glass and steel panels that cover the exterior are also examples of prefab construction in action.
Modular homes - are completely assembled in a factory setting and then transported to the job site and set into place. Once the utilities are connected, the only thing left to do is to move in.
Onsite Construction vs. Prefab Homes
With onsite construction of a traditional home, you start with a pile of raw materials modified/altered by the different workers as the work progresses.
And with prefab home-building and modular construction, the raw materials get modified/altered off-site at the factory before shipping to the project location.
So, which option is best for your project?
Let's find out.
Five Common Misconceptions of Prefab Kits
Most of the online information you'll see about prefab cabin kits point to five core benefits, some of which actually do benefit the homeowner, others which are misconceptions. Those five common points are:
1. Somewhat Cost-Effective
Because the prefab work happens on the assembly line, many homeowners assume that a prefab cabin kit will cost less than an onsite build.
Factory worker wages may be slightly less per hour than onsite tradespeople, so the homeowner saves money on direct labor costs.
Not exactly. Your prefab cabin kit comes from a factory, and running a factory isn't cheap. Besides the workers' wages, the factory has other expenses like rent, utilities, tools, and machinery costs to cover every month.
And, those costs are passed on directly to their customer, the homeowner who purchases a prefab kit.
Since the contractor performs their work onsite, they don't need a factory location. So to take this as a costing example, no factory means no additional overhead costs to pass on to the customer.
2. Quicker Installation
Because the cutting, drilling, and other prep work occur at the factory, you will see progress almost immediately. After unpacking the materials, you're ready to start the building process of your prefab cabin.
In general, we're in agreement with this one. Construction time and how fast the build will take, however, is directly related to your builders' level of construction experience. And your access to the needed tools and equipment.
For example, you'll need a ladder or scaffolding to reach the top of a 16' high cabin ceiling. Tall ladders can be expensive to purchase but are available at most local rental yards.
But once you have the tall ladder on site, will you be able to use it?
Working at height isn't for everyone. As you work at the roof's peak, your feet are on a 2" wide ladder rung - 10' above the floor. And while you're up there, you need to handle the necessary materials and tools to get some work done. This can slow things down if the builder isn't comfortable in this working environment.
3. Quality control
The controlled environment of the factory, which uses jigs and patterns to ensure uniformity, is superior to the onsite option, where everything is cut and drilled as needed.
Maybe so, but let's think about that for a moment.
According to market research compiled by Global Industry Analysts, global shipments of prefabricated housing reached 1.1 million units in 2020. The US share was 95,000 residential units and 40,000 commercial/temp units.
Suppose the prefab option provides such a high level of quality. Why is onsite construction responsible for 90% of all new home construction happening right now? Certainly something to consider there.
4. No Reliance on Weather Conditions
Since most prefab work occurs within a controlled environment at the plant or factory, rain, wind, or snow can only affect the final onsite assembly timeline.
But, most of the sales literature doesn't discuss how that same inclement weather can delay your delivery to the building site. Until your kit arrives with all the materials, nothing is going to happen.
With the onsite option, bad weather can impact any part of the construction process and potentially cause a delay, particularly when you're in the early stages of setting the foundation and framing.
This one we'll say is mostly true, where you'll probably hit less weather related delays with prefab.
5. Easy Access to Remote Locations
If your project location is "off the beaten path," the prefab cabin option means everything arrives in one trip to the site.
Easy-peasy if you can create a staging area large enough for unpacking and sorting all of the materials.
With onsite construction, each contractor arranges for delivery of the specific supplies they will need to your home site. So your budget may need to absorb a few extra delivery fees. But, you won't need such a large staging area since the materials get delivered in smaller batches.
For the most part, if budget isn't an issue, it could be faster and easier to get your prefab materials dropped off all in one go. Say, for instance, by helicopter. On the other hand, most people don't have the budget to spend on extraneous costs like this.
Not all manufactured homes are created equal.
When comparing prefab kits, you must consider the amount of prefab work and materials included for the advertised price. Our prefab A-Frame cabin kit comes with everything you need, right down to the door hardware. If we do say so ourselves, it's one of the only GOOD prefab options out there.
But some prefab cabin kit manufacturers do things a little differently.
First, you purchase a "structural kit," which gives you enough materials to frame the basic structure.
Next, you can add (purchase) the "shell kit," which makes your cabin weathertight.
Now that you're all "dried-in," you can add (another purchase) the "exterior kit," which includes the roofing and siding materials.
Then comes the "interior kit" (yes, another purchase) to finish off your interior.
Be sure to leave some room in the budget for those extra kits to finish your prefab cabin...
Cons of Prefab Homes
There are a definitely a few potential setbacks when using a prefab cabin kit, in addition to the things we touched on above.
Higher per square costs - Your per square foot base price for a prefab kit is more expensive than a typical onsite project. The additional cost comes from utilizing a factory and covering its rent, utilities, and profit margin. If you're after affordability, this might not be the route for you.
Payment upfront - When you're going with prefab you'll likely have more upfront payments as opposed to a payment schedule that follows the process of your build.
Longer lead times - This is a major point. It's no secret that ADUs, vacation homes, and office pods are all the rage right now. As demand continues to outpace limited manufacturing abilities, you may have to wait a while before your kit is ready to ship.
Rising transportation costs - While this could change quickly, currently fuel and shipping prices are on the rise. For everything from tonight's dinner, to a sofa, to a prefab kit, the excessive demand for delivery has transport services running at maximum capacity and charging higher rates.
Limited customization - Often times when you're choosing a prefab or modular house you won't have the same ability to customize your floor plan, home design, or even things like where the utility hookups will go.
And what happens if your kit gets damaged during transport?!
Every delivery company has insurance in place to reimburse you for any transport damage. The problem is, the damage usually goes unnoticed until you unpack the materials. After the delivery driver has already left your site.
You will need to wait until the company can schedule another truck to pick up the damaged items and return them to the cabin kit manufacturer.
Then, after all of that, the delivery company's insurance carrier will have to accept the liability, approve the reimbursement, and send you a check. Once you have the money in hand, you can replace the damaged items and get back to work... If it sounds like a headache, that's because it is.
The Caveat; for Hospitality and Development
Particularly when considering multiple builds or anything related to hospitality or development, prefab can absolutely be a great option. Sometimes, the best option.
When you're building multiples of the same thing (think glamping destinations, living complexes, developments, hotels, Airbnb properties...), prefab can be your best friend.
Bulk pricing and delivery can speed things up and bring your project to market much quicker. Looking to set up a bunch of Airbnb cabins on the same property? Definitely look into prefab.
Another Option to Consider
For many consumer homeowners, our prefab A-frame cabin kit is the best and quickest solution for creating a new space in the outdoors. For others, not so much.
We get it, and we have another option to consider:
Purchase a house plans, and hire a local builder. There's no waiting for the next production run or dealing with transport costs, either.
Hiring a contractor or builder comes with a few perks of its own as well:
- Locally-sourced materials are generally cheaper and sustainable, which is better for your budget and the planet.
- You can modify finishes and options to suit your specific needs, style, and local building requirements (if needed).
- Hiring local labor is an investment in your community and helps your local economy.
- You can start building your project within days, not weeks (or months).
- Contractors provide a warranty for their work. Should there be an issue, call the contractor to correct the problem; at no extra cost to you.
Suppose you haven't worked with a residential contractor before. In that case, we outline the entire process here, in How to find and choose the best cabin builder for your project.
Depending on your project timeline and budget, prefab verses an onsite build is certainly something to consider. In either case, you have options and hopefully now you have more information to make an informed decision on which way to go.