Boom Nation: Prefab Chic

Behind an old hog barn in rural Missouri, just over an hour south of St. Louis, lies the unusual home of architect Rocio Romero.

It's the very antithesis of the barn -- Romero's home is modern, angular, silver. It's as firmly rooted in this century as the barn is in the last.

She designs and lives in what she hopes will be the next generation of stylish yet affordable homes. But there's a twist. Romero's homes are prefabricated -- shipped to customers in a dozen crates and then assembled on-site.

Each house consists of four walls sheathed in corrugated exterior panels called Galvalume, carbon steel covered with aluminum zinc alloy. The houses come with a 30-year warranty and never need painting, Romero says. When they're dirty you just hose them down. The homes also have lots of windows -- she says the ratio is 50:50 -- to bring the outdoors inside. Each home's modern interior is made up of airy, clean, white spaces divided into the usual living arrangements: living room, dining area, kitchen, two bedrooms and two baths.

Romero hopes the trend will catch on. "There's a lot of people in the modern prefab movement," she says, "and hopefully we'll make a difference."

The words "prefab" and "housing" may conjure images of trailer parks, but Romero sees something entirely different. "I learned that through prefabrication you have more control over the craftsmanship, and you have more control over the costs," she says.

It's that cost control that allows Romero to put a mobile homelike price tag on her decidedly upscale designs. Romero offers two house models: The 1,150-square-foot LV (for Laguna Verde, which is where her first prefab house, built in Chile for her parents, is located) and the 1,440-square-foot LVL. The LV kit runs $32,900; the LVL is $40,050 -- less than you might pay for your typical luxury car. Romero estimates that having a contractor put it together and finish the interior runs between $100 and $150 per square foot, depending on your taste.

The cost is so low because Romero's kits provide only the basics. "If you're looking from the outside, everything on the exterior is included except for the windows and the roofing material," she explains. "That's the simplest way to understand it."

A House in a Box

Chris Wurster and his wife are building one of Romero's prefab homes beside a river in upstate New York. He's in awe of the quick transformation: "One weekend we came up and there was a deck, and the next weekend we came up, there was a house. It truly is a house in a box."

Wurster estimates his house will cost only $120 per square foot, rather than the $300 plus for a comparable custom-built home.

Prefab housing is not a new idea. From 1908 to 1940, Sears Roebuck and Co. sold more than 100,000 kit homes through its mail order catalog. Many of those homes still stand today.

Architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright in the United States and Le Corbusier in France proposed mass-produced, prefabricated homes, although the concepts rarely made it off the drafting table.

Today more than 90 percent of existing homes are "stick built" -- built one at a time, from the ground up -- even those McMansions that fill up the ever-growing subdivisions. But architects Joseph Tanney and Robert Luntz of Resolution: 4 Architecture believe the era of modern prefabricated homes has finally arrived.

Unlike Romero's kits, their homes do not come in box. Instead, they come in units, or modules, built in a factory. Stairs and roofs come as additional pieces. Tanney says the construction is a bit like building with Legos. "You are able to assemble the blocks together to create a new composition," he explains.

By mixing and matching the modules, the architects and the homeowners can configure the home in nearly unlimited combinations. Take, for example, Paul Livornese. His modular home in New York's Catskill region took two years to complete because the process was so new to everyone involved. He had difficulty finding a manufacturer and getting approval from the state's engineers.

But once the modules arrived, he was ecstatic.

"The day it was all installed was kind of ... pretty wild," says Livornese. "You see houses built all the time, stick-built frames, you know what they look like. Here you see these incredible boxes flying through the air just sort of, like, stacking on top of each other and then it's there."

His modular prefab home cost just under $200 per square foot, less, he says, than if he had built the house from scratch. "I think the home is very cool. I think it's unique," says Livornese. "It's just the modern day treehouse."

Prefab homes still have a bit of an image problem. For those wary the houses may be prone to disaster, Tanney says each one must adhere to all the local requirements and engineering requirements for code.

And despite growing interest by homeowners in prefab homes, the industry has a long way to go. "What we are trying to do is offer a modern option," explains Tanney. "A relatively affordable modern option to the housing market that's available and accessible at a large scale."

If everything else can be mass produced -- cars, clothing, food -- perhaps, after more than a century of trying, factory-made yet customized homes might finally be coming to a neighborhood near you.

For more information on the architecture companies referenced in this story, please visit:

Rocio Romero -- http://www.rocioromero.com

Empyrean International, LLC -- http://www.empyreanapf.com

Resolution: 4 Architecture -- http://www.re4a.com

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