Housing: Prefab Housing Goes Fab

Mention the phrase "prefab house" at a cocktail party, and you'll likely hear jokes about double-wide trailers and mobile-home parks.

But a new wave of architects, designers and home buyers has slowly changed the image of prefabricated housing by invigorating it with home designs that are elegant, comfortable and spacious.

Prefabricated housing has reached the upper echelons of the arts community, too. Recent exhibits at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Field Museum in Chicago celebrated contemporary prefabricated housing designs.

And Dwell magazine, the stylish monthly publication that has championed modernist and prefab design for years, has recently entered into a collaboration with architects and a manufacturer to make the construction of prefab homes simpler and more affordable.

From Sears and Roebuck to Sleek and Sexy

The idea of manufacturing a house in a factory and shipping it to a home site is not new. As early as 1908, companies like Sears, Roebuck and Co. shipped prepackaged kit homes -- including lumber, doorknobs, nails and, yes, the kitchen sink -- to more than 100,000 home buyers nationwide.

The Sears program was discontinued in 1940, and in the years following World War II, prefab construction in the United States consisted of Airstream trailers, geodesic domes and inexpensive, traditional-looking vacation homes.

About the same time, a visionary group of architects, including many immigrants from war-torn Europe, looked anew at residential design. They worked to introduce modern machine technology and materials like steel and concrete into home construction. Sleek modernist homes with steel framing and broad expanses of glass began to appear in cities like Los Angeles and Palm Springs, Calif., and Sarasota, Fla.

Although the modernists of the 1950s and 1960s failed to ignite the general public's imagination, a new generation of consumers has embraced modernist design in all its retro-hip glory. Popular magazines like Sunset and Dwell now carry the torch for modernist home design.

Both magazines have sponsored prefab home designs, generating a groundswell of support that's almost cultlike in its fervor. A recent Sunset open house for the stylish prefab Breezehouse, designed by Bay Area architect Michelle Kaufmann, attracted about 27,000 visitors.

Building an Erector Set House

What makes today's prefab homes different from other homes is their sleek design and modular approach to construction. "It truly is kind of an Erector Set or Lincoln Logs kind of house," said Tom Sandonato, designer and co-founder of KitHAUS, in Van Nuys, Calif.

KitHAUS uses a system of square modules, each measuring 16 feet by 16 feet. The modules, which come with glass panels and aluminum wall and ceiling sections, can be connected to one another at the construction site to construct larger houses with L-shaped floor plans and other features.

Flatpak, the brainchild of Minneapolis designer Charlie Lazor, also takes a modular approach, using 8-foot sections. Each section consists of a panel of wood, glass (either frosted or clear), corrugated metal, concrete -- even madras cladding. Using this "menu of components," clients can custom design a home that addresses their preferences with all the prefabricated pieces delivered to their building site.

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