‘Pre-Fabulous': New Generation of Prefabs Rise Above Modest Origins

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:55

    The word "prefab" conjures up all kinds of negative connotations: cheap, trailer parks, shoddy construction, poor quality materials and dull, boring design. Well, some of those may have applied 25 years ago, but these days, "manufactured housing" oftentimes meets or exceeds on-site construction in terms of quality, durability and cutting-edge design while still boasting construction time and cost advantages. Skeptical? Talk to Nathan Wieler. In 2002, Wieler and his wife Ingrid were looking for a new home in North Carolina. Like many young homebuyers, high prices, small lots and cookie-cutter designs quickly discouraged the couple. Then he talked to a builder friend of his who told him about prefab. "He said prefab quality was just as good if not better than site-built homes, and actually offered some advantages in terms of cost and timing," says Wieler. The conversation ultimately spawned a prefab design contest in conjunction with Dwell magazine, put the Wielers in the winning home, the Dwell Home designed by New York-based Resolution 4: Architecture, and convinced Nathan to go into the housing development business, focusing on prefab. Recently, Wieler purchased 100 acres of land in Henley, N.C., that he is dividing into 20 lots for Rapson Greenbelt prefab homes. Architect Ralph Rapson designed the Greenbelt in 1945 for the groundbreaking Case Study House Program, a project of Arts and Architecture magazine that sought to develop alternatives to tract housing. Rapson then submitted the design to the Dwell contest last year, and it caught Wieler's eye. The Greenbelt's distinctive design feature is a glass atrium spanning the center of the home, but it also boasts floor-to-ceiling windows, indoor/outdoor fireplaces and 9-foot ceilings. And it comes in a variety of designs: one-story, two-story, walkouts, townhomes, courtyards and others, ranging in size from 576 to 2,660 square feet. A far cry from trailer parks and cookie-cutter boxes n as are the 90-percent prefab Glidehouse and the Sunset Breezehouse (the latter built in conjunction with Sunset magazine) from Michelle Kaufmann Designs, Oakland, Calif. The genesis of Kaufmann's prefab designs was similar to the Wielers: She and her husband Kevin Cullen were looking for a new home but were unable to find a place they liked and could afford. So architect Kaufmann designed her own. True to its name, the Glidehouse features gliding glass doors, gliding glass walls and clerestory windows that allow the homeowner to maximize breezes, and gliding wood doors in front of an area that transforms from solid wall to storage bar. Glidehouse floor plans range from 672 to 2,016 square feet. A major feature of Kaufmann's designs and prefab in general is the environmental friendliness. The Glidehouse utilizes bamboo flooring; indirect lighting to minimize electrical usage; a proprietary energy recovery system; and countertops made with recycled paper, fly ash (a byproduct of coal combustion) and low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) finishes. "Buildings built in the controlled environment of the factory like the Sunset Breezehouse have much more quality control, more accuracy, less waste and result in a stronger building that is built in a lot less time than site-built buildings," says Kaufmann. "It takes less fuel and electricity to create a building in 24 days vs. seven months." Homes like the Greenbelt, the Glidehouse and the Sunset Breezehouse provide the benefits of mass production with individual design. Kaufmann is finding that the greatest advantages to her clients are in the process: "Predictability in costs, shortened timeframe and reduced hassles," she says. Some of the main target markets for modern prefab are "younger people with a good eye but either insufficient financial resources or insufficient time" for a site-built home, says Kaufmann, or middle-age children looking for a cost-effective home for their parents. Prefab eliminates most design service fees. Architectural services usually account for 8-15 percent of construction costs, says Wieler. "And houses tend to be over budget when you're working from scratch." Oregon Yurtworks Inc., Eugene, Ore., offers custom prefab designs ranging from about $90-$115 a square foot, while the standard Glidehouse plan runs about $130 per square foot. Neither includes the land. Depending on the choice of design and lot, Wieler's Rapson Greenbelt homes run between $150,000 and $600,000, including land. Wieler and Kaufmann both see prefab taking an even bigger role in the housing market in years to come. Now is the time for non-traditional homebuyers, people looking for something economical but different, or simply people looking to live a "greener" life to get in on the ground floor.