April 25, 2006 — -- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
The benefits of prefab homes, say their proponents, are economic and ecological.
Kaufmann cites the use of eco-friendly materials as one of the more popular features of the Breezehouse and her other prefab houses. She designs with bamboo flooring, solar heating panels, nontoxic paints, recycled materials and energy-conserving tankless water heaters.
But the lighter impact that prefab houses have on the building site may bring a more significant environmental benefit.
"There's much more efficient use of materials [in prefab] than in site-built construction," said Sylvester. "Go by any construction site and you'll see enormous scrap wastes getting thrown into Dumpsters." Because the building parts are molded or cut in a controlled factory setting, there is less waste and less energy used.
And streamlining construction processes means prefab houses go up faster. Despite the fact that the initial costs of prefab houses are comparable to those of other houses (prices are usually in the neighborhood of $100 to $150 per square foot), there are considerable savings in construction time.
"Where you save money is in the installation," said Sandonato. While on-site construction time for custom homes is often up to a year, prefab homes may be installed in as little as a week, with fewer weather-related delays.
When these cost savings are added to the energy savings prefab homes reportedly realize, their costs become competitive with other housing options. But proponents agree prefab houses are still beyond the reach of most low-income or first-time home buyers.
"This is really an economy-of-scale question," said Sylvester. "This is a niche market."
What's really driving the demand for these homes, said enthusiasts, is consumers' thirst for interesting design in all products, from martini glasses to mops.
"There's been an interest in design in general in the United States, maybe catching up with Europe," said Geoff Warner, principal architect at Alchemy Architects, designers of the weeHouse line of prefab houses. Prefab housing has been popular in Europe for decades.
Warner noted that media and advertising play a role in sparking interest in well-designed products. "It distinguishes Target from Wal-Mart. Target has design, and Wal-Mart doesn't," Warner said.
But proponents of prefab housing agree that the concept still has a way to go before it catches on throughout the United States. "There's still a widely held misconception that anything built in a factory is a trailer home," said Sylvester. "That's a stigma of prefab that we have to overcome."
But it won't take long, Sylvester said. "Factory-built housing can be extremely high quality and a good investment."