There's a long path-not-taken on housing. Most things in our society have gotten a lot cheaper per unit service in the past hundred years or so, including many entirely new categories of services. Housing has stubbornly resisted change, with the result that an ever-larger portion of our culture's capital is tied up in providing housing. And housing hasn't gotten any more useful, either.
http://hexayurt.com gives some notion of how radical that shift could be when it arises. Industrial panels (of whatever kind) directly into owner-build housing. Free Hardware. You may laugh, but half the world lives in cinderblock-and-tin-roof shacks and worse.
Nobody said the innovation had to start here, or look like what we do now.
That's interesting stuff, but all we really need to get the ball rolling is to remove the financial and regulatory speed bumps that prevent people from buying prefab homes. It's not like it is some kind of mystery how to reduce the cost of building a home...
EDIT: I was thinking more in terms of the way lending and building ordinances very strongly favor building a house on site vs. trucking it in, as opposed to the really... insightful... stuff you guys have mentioned.
I'm not particularly bitter - I didn't like them when they were new, disliked them once the birds nibbled the rendered polystyrene off the exterior, and avoided them like the plague once we came to buying houses. What I am bitter at is the way the manufacturers of the systems that have failed have seemly got off completely freely from the disaster they have created.
Sorry, wasn't intending to hide anything. James Hardie was behind one of the crap systems of cladding I believe. Poorly treated timber from Carter Holt has been fingered, and a multitude of building development companies that created new legal entities for each new development, then folded them at the end of each job and vanished into the night. This was a standard practice. And of course, the government (starting with Nationals Bolger, and subsequent governments too) through weakening regulation, and local government who failed to ensure that even the weakened laws were followed. Like all good mistakes - everyone had a hand in it, and no one group was entirely responsible.
Edit: On further thought, I see I've been slightly misleading/unclear. When I started taking about the manufacturers of the problems, I wasn't meaning just the building materials that have failed, I also meant the regulatory systems and practices that were poor.
Indeed, it actually seems like we've gone the other way. During the first half of the twentieth century, buying and living in Ikea-esque "Kit Houses" was actually not entirely unheard of. The Wikipeida page for Sears Catalog Homes  actually lists the price range as between "$12,590 and $55,390 in 2008 dollars," which certainly seems like it could be price competitive with other methods of new home construction, even taking into account costs like land, etc.
My grandfather did that in the 50s with my dad helping a little. You need to scale for sq footage, the average American house has increased from 1000 sq ft to something unaffordable recently. By sq foot its probably not so much of a deal.
Apparently it takes only a couple weeks for one man to build a house, but the labor involved in general contracting to get the subcontractors to do their thing exceeds the time spent swinging a hammer. He sub'd out to dig and pour the foundation, some electrical, gas, some plumbing...
For those of a certain generation it was how you proved to the employer that you could complete long complicated projects, basically the equivalent of completing your college degree (which was hard to complete during WWII)
This is still done on a regular-ish basis for large garden sheds and garages. Home Depot and others will dump a pile of wood at your location with some plans and bulk pack of nails and other hardware and a weekend or two later you'll have a garden shed.
The permitting and inspection process is more about revenue generation than safety.
>There's a long path-not-taken on housing. Most things in our society have gotten a lot cheaper per unit service in the past hundred years or so, including many entirely new categories of services. Housing has stubbornly resisted change, with the result that an ever-larger portion of our culture's capital is tied up in providing housing. And housing hasn't gotten any more useful, either.
Yeah... but a lot of that is we don't /want/ housing to get cheaper. Most voters will vote to keep housing more expensive.
It's odd that its like that - assembly line production doesn't have to equate to poor quality, and with the things I own its
usually quite the opposite. Done right you can have good materials made into complicated things cheaply. However I'm yet to see (in the flesh) a prefab building that I like. Grand Designs, the UK show, has shown a few great ones featured but its a shame there aren't more to be seen as making a house on a production line would solve many of the things home owners grapple with. In the last month alone I have replaced a shonky toilet, a leaking pipe from bad install, bad fuse box case, several bad roof tiles, weird sink plumbing and 3 cheap crappy doors. If production line assembly can make these jobs easier and more standardised (how many different diameter pipes can one toilet use!) without resorting to cheap junk that whilst creating houses that look nice, I'll be happy.
Prefab house sounds like the big builders. Everything that can be installed is the cheapest garbage that can legally be sold. If you watch big box home retailers (home depot, etc) they even make fun of it by calling the worst possible model they sell the "contractors special" or "builders special" to emphasize that no one who intends to live there and be stuck using it, would ever install such garbage.