And most observers of the scene agree Michelle has some of the best ideas. Just this month she received the green Individual Advocate of the Year award from the National Association of Home Builders. And when I was at the AIA National Convention in San Francisco, also earlier this month, I happened to talk about Michelle with Ray Kappe, FAIA, founder of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc)—a school known for churning out creative innovators. Ray, who's in his 80s, experimented with prefab the first time around in the 1950s and designed the first LEED Platinum modular house for LivingHomes in 2006. Michelle, he told me, "is the best out there. She's doing prefab right."
Prefab proponents still believe factory-built housing is the right way to go, and won't disappear from the scene as it once did. Jennifer Siegal, another prefab savant, told us recently, "It's a better way of producing dwellings: less waste, less time. Which potentially leads to less cost, but the only way you get there is by having more demand. In the next five years, the industry is going to move forward. It's not just a flash in the pan."
It's important to note that one of the reasons Michelle's company rose above so many on a similar path was the sheer beauty of the designs. They were handsome houses—especially the Glidehouse and Sunset Breezehouse—no matter how they were made. They demonstrated to Americans the power and potential of good design to blunt our impact on the environment, while still answering the primal desire for a satisfying, life-enhancing place to live. Green design won't win any popularity contests until there are more reasons to buy it than to pass it by. We make our home purchase decisions using 25 percent reason and 75 percent passion. Kaufmann's smart, sophisticated house designs answered both drives.
Were this any other economy, the momentum of Michelle's talent, drive, personal charisma, and vision might have carried her through. Architects in the past did their best to shelter their firms from financial risk and liability and, in doing so, abdicated their role and responsibility in housing innovation. We have all suffered for their absence. Michelle was doing much more than her part to strive for much-needed change, contributing disciplined thinking to residential design and building and offering enlightened stewardship through the whole daunting process for her clients.
Despite this considerable setback, I can't imagine the economy will keep her down for long. Meanwhile, she will decamp to her own Glidehouse—the original, stick-built prototype—and practice again as just Michelle Kaufmann. But if anyone can reinvent themselves, she can. As she wrote in her most recent blog post, "There is so much improvement and innovation to do in creating healthy, diverse, efficient and beautifully designed communities. There is more than one model of the American Dream." Most of us stop at the dream itself, but Michelle dares to make it come true. I can't wait to see what she does next.
Comments? Email: S. Claire Conroy at email@example.com.
Read more about Michelle Kaufmann in residential architect and its sister magazines:
Top Firm, November/December 2008 issue
Reinvention 2008 Video Interview
Reinvention 2008: Is Modular Really More Affordable?
Reinvention 2008 Changing the Paradigm session
"New Season, New Books," March 2009
"Home Nutrition Labels," October 2008
"White Paper Explores the True Costs of Green Homes," December 2008 (from CUSTOM HOME)
"Museum Gets a Smart Home," February 2008
"New Visions of Home," January/February 2005 issue
Green Pieces, January/February 2008 issue
"Michelle Kaufmann Unveils Zero-Energy Prefab House," September 2007 (from BUILDER)
Read more about Michelle Kaufmann's company closure elsewhere:
Michelle Kaufmann's blog
Los Angeles Times