Interior Prefabs Gives Homes New Life

New ways to customize prefabs, which are key for translating the building method to homes


The modular interior construction world, so acceptable in office and institutional settings, is evolving to suit homeowners. The lack of skilled trades available is one of the reasons. Plus, there are now new ways to customize prefab, which is key for this method of building to translate to homes. With this shift, some of the things homeowners can now access during this building revolution are: real-world design using virtual reality, faster move-in dates, a house that supports any changes in life, and, mundane as it sounds, fewer dumping bins in the driveway.

Commercial tenants already take teams into virtual reality worlds to explore and modify their designs. As they go around from room to room, they can ask for changes and instantly see what it will look like. Just as importantly, they can get an exact price instantly. The price isn’t based on complexity, but rather on the quantity and quality of the materials. Everyone is on the same page and able to make the right decisions for their space, fast. Now homeowners have that same level of empowerment.

This is a first for the layman trying to renovate or build a home. If you can’t read a drawing or understand the construction world, it is difficult for a regular person to make good decisions, and just as hard for their designer to help them through the process. By giving their clients a virtual, walk-around envisioning experience that is also engrained with all the data for constructibility and pricing, designers are a better partner to their design team, and there are less chances for errors and re-dos that induce material and energy waste.

Leading the way in interactive virtual reality combined with responsive, manufactured building materials is DIRTT, or Doing It Right This Time. DIRTT is filling hospitals, schools and offices around the world with unique prefab environments. And now homeowners can take advantage of this process.

Custom modular prefab components include walls, doors, cabinetry, millwork, hardware, ceilings and glazing. They support furniture, appliances, media devices, plumbing and electrical. The building components are designed and engineered to respond to the shell of the house and the designer’s intent. Once site dimensions and “built-in” appliance sizes are set, the components are produced to a decimal point of a millimeter to fit exactly.

Using off-site construction in a controlled factory setting, waste is both minimized through precision and consistently maintained through rigorous recycling programs. In a typical renovation or build, raw materials arrive in standard sizes, are cut to fit and the waste is disposed of. At best, the waste is sent to be recycled for a cost. A Cornell University study done in 2004 looked at the construction waste for an 1,894-square-foot single-family house. They found gypsum/drywall was the biggest waste material. 1,788 pounds of gypsum waste was generated, simply from the necessary cutting of drywall to fit around windows, doorways, and other openings. That is nearly one pound of waste for every square foot of house area. The homeowner paid for that virgin material. And now they are paying for a bin to throw it in and a truck to haul it away and a fee to dump it, to say nothing of the labor.

DIRTT’s custom modular components arrive flatstack, like IKEA® products. Meanwhile inside the house, everything else is roughed in. A small crew performs the quick-connect, tilt-up construction. Details such as crown molding, base-trim and doorframes clip on at the end. Construction is fast, clean and efficient. No bins on the driveway. No trucks hauling waste.

On top of this, the components used to build the house, while looking very permanent day-to-day, are easily disassembled and changed when needed. Whether that means a new, bigger (always bigger!) TV is integrated into a wall or someone needs a grab bar in the bathroom, the home responds without the pain and waste of renovation.

In the bigger picture, this changes the lifespan of houses and the nature of communities. If the interior — where the people are — can match the needs of lives there, the bones of the house can last decades longer. Neighborhoods won’t see the ebb and flow of generations moving in and out to find homes that suit growing families, empty nesters and singles.

Until now this method of construction was only suitable for commercial and institutional spaces because the occupants or owners didn’t worry much about creating a feeling of warmth and permanence. By creating modular spaces able to embrace all the little details and finishes that make a house a home, this new approach is not only appropriate for residential design, it is better.

Carol Bullied heads up the team known as DIRTT for Life. They work with designers, developers, contractors and homeowners. DIRTT is a member of the USGBC national chapter. Visit her at