Housing: Prefab Housing Goes Fab

Other prefab designers eschew the modular approach and instead design houses individually, but they still use components that are engineered and manufactured in factories, which, as with the modular approach, get delivered to the building site. Even this custom approach, proponents claim, reduces construction time and eliminates much of the waste that traditional on-site construction generates.

Dwelling on the Past

In the 1950s, now-defunct Arts & Architecture magazine sparked an interest in modern design by sponsoring the Case Study program, which attracted architects like Richard Neutra and Eero Saarinen. Most of the Case Study homes, built primarily in Southern California, have become world-renowned design icons.

Enter Dwell, another upstart magazine whose pages feature average families living in comfortable, modernist homes. "We have been promoting prefab for a very long time," said Shelley Kieran, director of communications for Dwell.

"We built a prefab home in North Carolina in 2003. We expected 300 people to come -- but more than 2,500 people showed up," she said.

Like Arts & Architecture before it, Dwell realized the interest in modernist design was more than just a passing fancy. "We get so many inquiries from readers, we decided to get in touch with a manufacturer."

Dwell partnered with Empyrean, a manufacturer of custom homes in Acton, Mass., and found three architecture offices with an interest in pursuing prefab: Joseph Tanney and Robert Luntz of Resolution: 4 in New York City, Charlie Lazor of Lazor Office in Minneapolis and Joel Turkel of Empyrean NextHouse.

"To have three different architects and a manufacturer and a magazine is very new," said Kieran. "It's very interesting to have the three of us together." Dwell's second prefab home, also in North Carolina, is expected to be completed in October.

But Who Wants a Factory-Built House?

Buyers of modernist prefab housing might not be whom you would expect.

It's not always the black turtleneck-wearing, Saab-driving design snob, according to Michael Sylvester, founder and editor of fabprefab.com, a Web site devoted to all things prefab. "Some of these people are the exact antithesis of the black-clad, card-carrying modernist," he said.

"A surprising number are older, retiring baby boomers," Sylvester said, noting that many households are downsizing and looking for simplicity in their lifestyles and their homes.

And growing families have also adopted modernist prefab as their housing style of choice. "There's a myth that you can't be untidy in modernism, [but] they're very livable spaces," Sylvester said. "It's a true home where a family with kids and a dog can live and make a mess.

One thing prefab aficionados have in common, according to Sylvester, is an interest in unique homes that are designed by architects, not building contractors. "What's changing and why more people will adopt this, is ... choices in housing," said Sylvester. "As long as there are people unhappy with the status quo in housing choices, there will be an opportunity for well-built prefab or factory-built housing."

Green Design and Greenbacks

The benefits of prefab homes, say their proponents, are economic and ecological.

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