Both models took Siegal years to develop. “It's a lot more complicated than just putting together a kit of parts,” she says. Her determination to make her prototypes into viable products extends well beyond their design and fabrication. She's also done much of her customers' logistical legwork, establishing home relationships with real estate agents and financial consultants who are open to the concept of prefab. Her cover-all-the-bases strategy seems to be working: Since the homes became available to the public in 2003 (Portable House) and 2004 (Swellhouse), OMD has sold eight of the former and five of the latter. It's also designing an L.A. artists live/work community of 40 Portable Houses, as well as two low-income housing projects, each of which will contain a combination of 40 to 60 Portable Houses and/or Swellhouses.
In addition to exploring both panelized and modular construction, Siegal has also investigated the potential of using shipping containers as prefab building components. In 2003 she and her firm finished work on the Seatrain House, a 3,000-square-foot custom home in downtown L.A., built from containers and structural steel. “I learned a lot from that project,” she says. “I usually don't recommend containers, mostly because you can't get a permit for them in L.A. But the idea of using seagoing refuse is really interesting.” Other notable projects include the master plan for an on-the-boards development of Modern prefab houses in Joshua Tree, Calif.; the Eco-Skate House, a custom modular residence for a professional skateboarder in Malibu, Calif.; and the Hydra House, an unbuilt underwater dwelling the firm designed in two different versions for Popular Science and Wallpaper magazines.
The Hydra House's futuristic skin and interiors signal another one of Siegal's fascinations: ultra-high-tech, high-performance building materials. She devoted much of her 2002–03 Loeb Fellowship at Harvard's Graduate School of Design to studying them, and is writing a subscription-only publication for Princeton Architectural Press, to debut this month, called Materials Monthly. “Subscribers get a box with samples of three materials and a book explaining them,” she says. “The only way that this stuff will get out into the world is if architects use it in their practices.”
Yes, Siegal is a busy woman. And her biggest production yet is in the pipeline: Inhabitable Art, a collection of prefab house designs by 10 well-known architects, will be built in a new, fully automated manufacturing facility she's building in Riverside, Calif. (OMD will release more information on Inhabitable Art later this year.) When she needs a break from designing, running her six-person firm, writing, and public speaking, Siegal leaves her Venice, Calif., house and goes mobile in her 1972 Airstream down to her trailer in Baja California, Mexico. Siegal clearly has a personal stake in the future of prefabricated structures, and her motives for believing in them are as big-picture as they are practical. “Economics is definitely one reason, although prefab is not always cheap,” she says. “And the tolerances are very tight and precise. But one thing I've realized over the years is that too many choices overwhelm people. They want things whittled down because time is a factor.” If she has her way, a well-designed and well-built house will be the only choice there is.
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