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    Credit: Tavis Coburn

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Five years ago, modern prefabricated housing was going to change residential architecture. Fueled by a bullish economy, a talented group of architects, an enthusiastic media, and a subset of home buyers hungry for affordable modern design, the world of prefab overflowed with possibilities. The thought of great-looking modern homes for everyone—ones that the homeowner could easily customize, like a car—excited and thrilled idealists everywhere. It was a concept architects had been pursuing for almost a century but never fully realized. This time, many people thought, the time for architect-led prefab had finally arrived.

We all know what happened next. In 2008, the economy crashed, taking the real estate market down with it. And architects who had invested time and money into prefab took just as much of a hit as their non-prefab peers. Jittery clients canceled or postponed projects, prefab factories shut down, and lenders froze. One of the modern prefab movement’s most successful and charismatic proponents, Michelle Kaufmann, was forced to close her doors in May 2009. “If architects couldn’t capitalize on the boom years ... to move closer to mass production, you have to wonder if they will ever be able to,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’ architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne in June of that year.

Many observers thought the cost of modern prefab houses was another culprit, coupled with the free falling economy. “It’s still a completely niche, high-end product,” says Lloyd Alter, design editor of the blog TreeHugger. As Hawthorne alluded to, in the years leading up to 2008, modern prefab practitioners hadn’t been able to achieve the economies of scale they needed to lower their prices as dramatically as many of their potential customers expected. Prefab pioneer Jennifer Siegal, of the Los Angeles–based Office of Mobile Design, notes that once the recession started, “I was getting tons of phone calls from people asking for cheap. There was this perception that because it was multiples, it would be $100 per square foot.” In some situations, a prefab house does cost less than its stick-built counterpart. But, as Siegal says, “It’s not a cheap building system, and you don’t get cheap buildings.”

Modern prefab may not have led to the ultra-affordable, high-design utopia of many architects’ (and architecture writers’) dreams, but that doesn’t mean it’s over. Drawn by the promise of faster construction times, lowered material waste, and greater control over the building and estimating process, architects have continued to get prefab houses built during the recession, if not at the scale they originally had imagined. And almost everyone connected with modern prefab has a more realistic post-recession outlook. “In 2006, we believed we would solve societal problems,” says Toby Long, AIA, another prefab veteran. “I don’t know that those kinds of problems get solved because we have a factory.” This reality check could be a good thing for prefab’s long-term health. “It’s too easy to put up a website and some pretty renderings,” says Kaufmann, LEED AP, who still designs and consults on prefab projects. “Now it does feel like people are doing it more thoughtfully.”

delivering architecture

Many of the architects involved with prefab have gone back to thinking of themselves more as designers, rather than as marketers of prefab houses. “I’ve stepped out of the sales channel,” says Long, whose Oakland, Calif., company, CleverHomes, has been around since 2003 and completed a dozen projects in 2011. “The front end and back end of prefab are two different purposes.” Long works with his clients to adapt one of his standard prefab house designs, and then bids it out to factories, the same way he would with general contractors if it were stick-built. Joseph Tanney, AIA, of Resolution: 4 Architecture in New York, which has completed nearly 50 modular homes, says he’s always seen the design and sales sides of prefab as two different beasts. “Our practice is as architects,” he explains. “We’re not trying to sell anybody anything. If we think modular is the best bang for the buck, we’re going to suggest it to the client.” (Read "profiles in prefab: resolution: 4 architecture.")

Another strategy that seems to be working for architects is cultivating a relationship with one particular prefab manufacturer. Maryann Thompson, FAIA, is collaborating with the Acorn Deck House Co., the 65-year-old kit house maker that had changed its name to Empyrean during the housing boom. (Empyrean went out of business for several months in 2008, but the revived company now has a new owner and has gone back to its previous name.) Thompson and her staff have designed a model for Deck House called the Hinge House, which they’ll adapt to a client’s site. So far one Hinge House is complete and another starts construction this spring. Thompson is pleased with the experience. “It’s much less expensive than full-service architecture,” she says. “I like the way the Deck kit of parts works.”

Tom Lenchek, AIA, of Balance Associates in Seattle, has a similar relationship with prefab builder Method Homes, which specializes in modular, architect-designed structures. Some of Method’s projects are fully custom, while others are customized versions of standard models. “They paid for us to develop their first model, and we adapt those for each client,” says Lenchek, who has since designed several more models and two custom homes for Method. “The houses tend to be nice, small, simple projects. The reduced timelines are another real benefit to prefab.” In 2011 alone, Balance and Method collaborated on 15 houses.

Even when the architect is both designer and seller, there’s a recognition that modern prefab often works best as a tool for delivering architecture—that its value lies in bundling good design into preconceived elements. “Customers are telling us the cost of building is the same as a stick-built house,” says Rocio Romero, whose kit-of-parts LV Home debuted in 2002 (read "profiles in prefab: rocio romero"). “But there are huge savings, because you’re getting high-end design.” Those who design both prefab and stick-built toggle back and forth between the two, using whichever method best suits a client’s site and priorities. “Our goal is to find the most efficient, most appropriate means to deliver the house,” says Leo Marmol, FAIA, of the design/build firm Marmol Radziner, which uses both building methods.

Remote locations where labor is difficult to find tend to favor prefab. So do time-sensitive situations and areas with high labor costs. In regions with inexpensive on-site labor, stick building often is a more cost-effective option. “The key thing is, what is the right construction approach to a specific site?” says Charlie Lazor, designer of the panelized FlatPak house and whose firm also does modular and site-built projects (read "profiles in prefab: lazor office"). “We can tailor fit the solution. At the end of the day, we’re just an architecture firm.”