Launch Slideshow

top firm: michelle kaufmann, aia, leed ap

michelle kaufmann infuses modular housing with sophisticated, eco-conscious design.

top firm: michelle kaufmann, aia, leed ap

michelle kaufmann infuses modular housing with sophisticated, eco-conscious design.

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    Max Whittaker/WpN

    Michelle Kaufmann (in her own Glidehouse) and her staff consistently try to maximize the relationship between house and site.

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    John Swain, courtesy Michelle Kaufmann Designs

    A sunset Breezehouse in San Geronimo, Calif., welcomes sunlight and mountain views into its central dining and living room and its cobalt-blue kitchen.

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    John Swain, courtesy Michelle Kaufmann Designs

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    John Swain, courtesy Michelle Kaufmann Designs

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    John Swain, courtesy Michelle Kaufmann Designs

    The rusted, corrugated metal cladding on a custom Sunset Breezehouse picks up the red hue of the tiled roofs that populate its Santa Barbara, Calif., surroundings.

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    John Swain, courtesy Michelle Kaufmann Designs

    Accordion glass doors and floor-to-ceiling curtains allow the owners to control the air flow and privacy in the main living and dining area.

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    Courtesy Michelle Kaufmann Designs

    By creating entire communites--such as a mixed use, mixed-income development in Denver--MKD will be able to vastly increase the number and sustainable dwellings in its portfolio.

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    Michelle Kaufmann Designs

    By creating entire communities--such as Big Wave in Half Moon Bay, Calif.--MKD will be able to vastly increase the number of sustainable dwellings in its portfolio.

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    John Swain, courtesy Michelle Kaufmann Designs

    Kaufmann and her husband outfitted the their Glidehouse with solar panels.

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    John Swain, courtesy Michelle Kaufmann Designs

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    John Swain, courtesy Michelle Kaufmann Designs

    At another Glidehouse in Ukiah, Calif., the kitchen island doubles as a casual dining spot. "We're in the middle of a cultural shift," she says of this move toward multipurpose features. "We want homes that aren't necessarily bigger but do more, like an i

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    Michelle Kaufmann Designs

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    Michelle Kaufmann Designs

    A three-story fireplace-and-cabinetry elements serves as the centerpieceof the mkHearth, the latest addition to MKD's stable of prefab home types. Its form recalls barns and farmhouses in the Midwest, where Kaufmann grew up.

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    John Swain, courtesy Michelle Kaufmann Designs

    A green-roofed mkLotus temporarily graced the lawn in front of San Francisco City Hall in 2007. Conceived as a retreat or vacation home, it was installed as part of that year's West Coast Green conference.

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    John Swain, courtesy Michelle Kaufmann Designs

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    JB Spector, courtesy Michelle Kaufmann Designs

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    John Swain, courtesy Michelle Kaufmann Designs

    Currently on display at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry as part of the exhibit Smart Home: Green + Wired, mkSolaire is designed to slip into slim city lots. The 2,500-square-foot house will be open for tours until Jan. 4, 2009.

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    John Swain, courtesy Michelle Kaufmann Designs

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    John Swain, courtesy Michelle Kaufmann Designs

This trial-and-error approach also came in handy when she realized that her original idea of having a traditional real estate broker handle sales just didn't fit MKD's identity. "For us it's about helping guide people through complex choices," she says. "That's a very different thing." Now, the company's business development strategy centers on gently educating potential clients about sustainable design and modular building, as well as walking current customers through the design and construction process. The firm's Web site even features a series of how-to videos showing Kaufmann making green, do-it-yourself home crafts projects. "It's an entry point into green—an effort to meet people where they are," she explains.

mission control

For Kaufmann to truly accomplish her mission of providing cost-effective, sustainable housing, she'll need to achieve greater scale. She's already started, having signed on with developers to create assisted-living multifamily housing in Half Moon Bay, Calif.; 24 townhomes in San Leandro, Calif.; a community for a group of Benedictine monks in Big Sur, Calif.; and a 122-unit mixed-income project in Denver. (Coincidentally, part of the Denver project will provide housing for Franciscan nuns; Kaufmann speculates that her emphasis on restful, serene spaces may attract those with a strong spiritual bent.)

Using mid-century housing pioneer Joseph Eichler as a model, she hopes to have 475 homes built by 2010 and 10,000 by 2015. "Then the energy savings, water savings, and carbon savings will get really interesting," she says. MKD itself takes on liability for the units, which appeals to developers managing their risks in a slow housing market. It's a burden Kaufmann feels comfortable handling, given her firm's setup as a sort of industrial design firm that happens to make houses. "We find what we believe to be the best balance of being beautiful, sustainable, low-maintenance, and long-lasting," she says. "Adding on that layer of liability means we really care. If we were just the architect or just the builder, we might make different choices."

A common knock on prefab housing is that it's been tried for decades and never fully succeeded, at least not in the United States. "In Japan, if you're doing a high-end home, you want it built in a factory," Kaufmann points out. The American tendency to associate modular housing with trailer homes is slowly going away, thanks in part to her efforts. She also believes consumers are growing more attuned to energy savings. In areas with high labor costs, she estimates that her homes can cost 20 percent less than their stick-built counterparts. But no matter where they are, their operating costs will be lower than most houses due to their energy-efficient and water-conserving traits.

As important as the energy issue is, Kaufmann cites communication technology as the key to the current prefab wave. "Technology unlocks geography," she says. "If your range is within 60 miles, it's tougher to achieve scale. We don't have those limitations." In 2007 she brought on a principal from the high-tech world, Lisa Gansky, to join her, Warner, and principals Scott Landry, AIA, and Joseph Remick, AIA. Gansky—co-founder of Ofoto, the online photo-sharing company that is now Kodak Gallery—has helped the firm develop an innovative software tool called the Configurator. Debuting in January 2009, the Configurator will let potential clients easily walk through different MKD homes online, trying different materials, finishes, and systems. In a particularly ingenious twist, it will also let them set filters per their own environmental preferences; if, say, water conservation is their top priority, they can set the Configurator accordingly.

Although Kaufmann's lofty goals demand a forward-thinking mind-set, she hasn't forgotten the basics. "There's so much to be learned from an Italian courtyard house or a barn in terms of light and airflow,"she says. The office's many talented architects and designers share her passion for suffusing spaces with natural light, uniting indoor and outdoor rooms, and making maximum use of square footage and materials. Kaufmann also embraces the personal aspect of her work, thinking about each home as if she herself were going to live there. If she can find a way to maintain that overall sense of care and connection as she moves into community design, she and her staff just might crack the prefab code once and for all. For now, she'll keep planting pockets of prebuilt beauty, improving our battered landscape one dwelling at a time.


To learn about the "Sustainability Facts" labeling program Michelle Kaufmann, AIA, LEED AP, has proposed for homes, visit http://tinyurl.com/3r3qqx.

In November 2008, Michelle Kaufmann released a white paper called "Redefining Cost: A Beacon of Hope Shines through Housing Market Gloom." To read it, visit www.mkd-arc.com" and click on "News."