A History of Prefab

What do Florence Nightingale, the California Gold Rush and Sears & Roebuck have in common?

For thousands of years, people have made buildings in one place and reassembled them in another. The practice of manufacturing buildings and assembling them on-site was first documented in the US as early as 1624, when British colonists transported a partially prefabricated building to Cape Ann, Massachusetts for a fishing camp. It was later dissembled and moved for reuse. Some of the early prefab modular structures and homes, built hundreds of years ago, are still standing and in use today.

Florence Nightingale is credited with starting and partially designing a prefab hospital.

Earliest prefab hospital

During the Crimean War in Turkey in in 1855, appalled by the squalor and horrific living conditions for the wounded soldiers, Florence Nightingale wrote an impassioned plea to the London Times asking for Britain to build a hospital. This prompted a commission for Isambard Kingdome Brunel to design a prefab modular facility to house patients. In six days, he designed the Renkioi Hospital: a 1,000-patient hospital with innovations in sanitation, ventilation and a flushing toilet that was manufactured and shipped within five months.

The “Lady with the Lamp“ is credited with setting standards for reforming hospital facilities, hygiene, sanitation and ventilation to aid in the prevention of germs. In fact, she wrote engineering plans and statistics detailing how ventilation and living conditions greatly reduce the spread disease. Indeed, her efforts reduced the death rate among the British soldiers from 42% to 3.5%,2 in large part due to the well-designed modular hospital.

More than The 500 prefab structures were transported from New York to San Francisco to house gold miners.

Prefab becomes a golden opportunity

Possibly at no time in history was prefab more profitable than during the early months of the Gold Rush. In 1839, prospectors flocked to northern California, sleeping in crowded hotel rooms, flop houses, tents in mudholes and makeshift shanties. As gold began flowing down the mountains and mining towns boomed, housing was at a premium. Enterprising builders began constructing pre-fab buildings in New York and shipping them across the country to house California minors.

Sears Modern Homes provides affordable shelter

Sears sold 70,000 prefab homes from 1908 to 1942.

Prefab kit houses, sold primarily through Sears, Roebuck and Co. Magazine by mail order, introduced the latest in technology for house buyers in the early part of the twentieth century. Sears Modern Homes incorporated modern conveniences like central heating, indoor plumbing, and electricity and offered these innovative developments in new home design at an additional price.

Often shipped across country in railroad boxcars, the kits included all the prefab materials needed to build a house. Many times, these homes were built by neighbors, family members or hired hands, much like a barn raising. Sears also contacted their services for assembly. The average Sears Modern Home kit contained approximately 25 tons of materials, with over 30,000 parts.

Sears reported that more than 70,000 of these homes were sold in North America between 1908 and 1940 and about 70% are still standing.4 In 1912, the company began offering financing for their single-family homes, typically at 6% interest for 5 to 15 years. Sears Modern Homes are still revered for their popular architectural designs, study structure and do-it-yourself construction as well as the big part they played in American history.

The future of prefab

Today, Backyard Workroom is changing the future of prefab modular design by offering a patent-pending, easy-to-assemble building made from steel and16 Horton SIP wall panels, an industrial product made from dense foam rated at R60-90, that provides endurance, strength and durability. For more information on Backyard Workroom prefab modular sheds, contact one of our franchisees today.

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