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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY.

And who would have guessed, but prefab housing - housing made in factories - is chic? Practically every issue of the popular architecture magazine Dwell has an article about how great prefab is. Lots of hip architects make the spare, boxy homes. They promise great design that's also affordable.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

At the online magazine Slate, architecture critic Witold Rybczynski has an appraisal, accompanied by a slideshow. And you can see that slideshow by going to our Web site, npr.org. Witold joins me now. Welcome to the show.

Professor WITOLD RYBCZYNSKI (Wharton University of Pennsylvania): Hi. Thank you.

BRAND: Well, you're welcome. And I have to offer my congratulations because the first picture on the slideshow is a prefab house that you made and it's really stunning.

Prof. RYBCZYNSKI: It was actually my first house. It was the house I built for my parents, a summer cottage. And a classmate and I put it together in about two weeks. It was sort of like playing a big game of Lincoln Logs. You just had to find the right piece, you know, to fit in.

I'm sort of proud of that house because it's 35 years old now. And it stood up very well.

BRAND: You make it sound so easy.

Prof. RYBCZYNSKI: This one was easy because they didn't try to prefabricate everything. The walls were the part that was unusual. They were made out of cedar. But the rest of the house was conventional construction. It probably works better not to try to reinvent the wheel. It works best when parts that make sense are prefabricated and other parts might be much more conventional.

BRAND: So prefab isn't new by any stretch, but why is it so hip right now?

Prof. RYBCZYNSKI: I think architects have always been interested in it. If you go right back to even before modern architecture starts - I mention a building I saw once traveling in Central America by Gustave Eiffel who built the Eiffel Tower, and he had a company that made prefabs and sent them, in this case, to Costa Rica. And it's sort of come around again and architects are sort of having another go at it.

BRAND: And are they successful?

Prof. RYBCZYNSKI: I think you have to say in some ways they are, in some ways they aren't. They certainly, as you said in your introduction, are attractive. And compared to building a house from scratch, they probably cost about the same as an architect-designed house. But that means they cost actually quite a lot. So in terms of affordability or bringing housing to a larger number of people, I don't think they are successful. They are really just too expensive.

Despite the fact that they are attractive looking and I think for many people, you know, represent a kind of house equivalent to an iPod or an iPhone, they have that kind of technological feeling, and I think that's part of the interest that magazines like Dwell have in it.

BRAND: And the conundrum being why can't you have these houses that are beautiful and have great design and have them be affordable?

Prof. RYBCZYNSKI: The problem when architects try prefabrication is that they kind of want to combine it with too many things. They want it to be modern, which means it's probably not terribly popular. It always ends up being more expensive because architects value design and they don't - they're not willing to compromise to reduce cost. And usually they are not that savvy when it comes to actual building technology.

So often probably one has to say - and I'm an architect so I don't like to say this - but it's because it starts with the architect rather than starting with the engineer or an industrialist who maybe it has slightly different values and maybe achieves more balance in the final product.

I think it's also interesting just to remember that if you look at a very ordinary builder house today that's being built, you know, down the street in a subdivision, really everything in that house is prefabricated. Everything comes from a factory, whether it's the porch railing or the kitchen cabinets or the doors and the windows. So we've stopped making houses by hand by and large a long time ago.

BRAND: Well, thank you very much.

Prof. RYBCZYNSKI: Thank you.

BRAND: That's architect and architecture critic Witold Rybczynski. His slide show and essay are at Slate.com.

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