Reinvention attendees couldn't get enough of Michelle Kaufmann, AIA, LEED AP. They'd listened to her speech Tuesday morning on the "Changing the Paradigm: Alternative Methods in Residential Design and Construction" panel. Then they heard about her many accomplishments at the Leadership Awards lunch, where residential architect editor S. Claire Conroy presented her with the magazine's Top Firm prize. But on Tuesday afternoon, a standing-room-only crowd of architects piled into the San Jacinto East room here at the Four Seasons Austin, to hear her insights into the relative affordability—or not—of modular houses.
Kaufmann didn't disappoint. She opened with a personal story about having worked for Michael Graves, FAIA, who had raised eyebrows in the 1990s when he began designing affordable household objects. "He was one of the first to say that everyone should have good design," she pointed out.
Now that Kaufmann has adopted that mission for herself, she often finds herself answering questions about the cost comparison between prefab and stick-built homes. She gave attendees a straightforward look at the construction time differences between one of her prefabs (4 months) and an identical stick-built house (14 months.) Similarly, she provided hard numbers about the costs of her different product levels. She said her preconfigured homes cost $140 per square foot to $175 per square foot to build in California, without site costs. Her custom prefabs cost $400 per square foot and up, and her multifamily units cost $100 per square foot to $125 per square foot. "Prefab will not cost more than site-built," she said. "In many cases it will cost less. But we need to rethink how we think about cost." She pointed out that holding costs are lower because of the shortened timeline of a prefab build, and, when built, the sustainable qualities of her homes make them less expensive to operate. She also mentioned her idea of Nutrition Labels for Homes, as a means of comparing the operating costs of one house versus another. (To learn about the "Sustainability Facts" labeling program Kaufmann has proposed for homes, click here.)
Accompanied by Charlie Lazor (another prefab pioneer and designer of the FlatPak house whom Kaufmann invited up on stage toward the end of the program) she patiently answered questions about prefab processes and pitfalls. And she listed off her most important pieces of advice. "Plan the business like a startup—don't think from the architect's point of view. Be fearless. Be adaptable."