Most buyers opt for some level of customization, whether they're purchasing the Glidehouse or the Glidehouse 2, a two-story version that came on the market in June 2004. By outsourcing sales and some construction management, Kaufmann has given herself time to labor over individual design changes and upgrades. In addition to the Glidehouse, she also does all-custom prefab homes, with 10 under contract so far. And she's got a new modular model, which she developed in partnership with Sunset Magazine, debuting this month.
Sustainability ranks high on her list of priorities; it's part of what attracted her to prefab in the first place. “There's less waste when a house is built in a factory,” she says. “They use a computer to cut members, and any extra pieces can be used on the next house.” The Glidehouse's namesake wall of gliding glass doors promotes daylighting and, along with the clerestory windows on the opposite wall, helps passively cool the interiors. Green items such as bamboo floors and recycled-paper countertops come standard, and buyers can also choose environmentally sound extras including solar panels wind turbines, and geothermal heat.
Kaufmann hopes her business model will be sustainable too. And it's looking that way at the moment. She employs two architects at Marin County–based Michelle Kaufmann Designs and hopes to add another this month. She's also enticed two modular housing factory veterans to join her as in-house project managers. They'll supervise production on custom prefab jobs, while CRG will still manage the Glidehouse and Glidehouse 2. She's finalizing deals with factories in Idaho and Southern California and negotiating with several others. “Getting factories to see the potential of prefab was one of the hardest things,” she says. “It's still a challenge, but it's getting better.” As with any startup business, her cash flow has also taken a hit. “That's been the toughest part,” she says. “We've kept our profits so low, in order to make the houses affordable, that in the beginning it doesn't pay off.” But she has faith in the future of prefab. “If the Sears house were happening now, it would be very different,” she says. “The technology is there now. A lot of the coordination that was never sorted out before can be done using FTP sites, live databases, and e-mail.”
A small percentage of Kaufmann's time goes to site-built custom projects, houses filled with curves and billows influenced by the work of a certain deconstructivist. But she doesn't regret leaving the world of “architecture with a big A,” as she calls the kind of projects she did at Gehry's office, to concentrate on prefab. “I'm definitely one of the strongest believers in a beautiful museum that thousands of people pass through every day,” she says. “But this is affecting people's lives too, in a different way."
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