Like many architects, Geoffrey Warner welcomes change. Years ago, the St. Paul, Minn.–based architect quit his job at a big commercial firm in search of something missing from his professional life: the hands-on nuts-and-bolts of construction. “When you graduate from architecture school, you don't know anything about how to put real buildings together,” he says. “So I started doing furniture and interiors and construction.” The experience serves Warner well in his current practice, Alchemy Architects. In fact, it came in very handy when designing and building one of his firm's most popular works to date, the weeHouse—a modular project first designed as a custom home in Minneapolis.
The client wanted a small, well-built cabin retreat, pure in form and light in cost. She placed priority on the beauty and quality of the built space and was less concerned about conventional amenities. Warner initially designed a traditional stick-frame house but then decided a modular house would best meet the architectural requirements of the project, as well as its $45,000 budget. “We looked at [structural insulated panels], but then we grabbed on to the idea of doing a steel moment frame and building around that,” Warner says. Prefab gave the architect control over the process and allowed him and friends Lucas Alm, who trained as an architect and helped design the house, and Scott McGlasson to put together the building in a warehouse, with no weather or contractor delays. And assemble it they did—with their own hands.
Warner then turned the weeHouse into a line of factory-built modular homes ranging from a 336-square-foot, $49,500 model to a 728-square-foot, $89,500 version. Because the house was not originally designed for prefab, the architects adapted stick framing to a factory situation and selected products that facilitate construction. For example, specing the ceiling height at 8 feet and matching it to 8-foot patio doors eliminated the need for trim, and keeping the building's width to 14 feet made it transportable.
Warner considers the weeHouse a success but learned some hard lessons in prefab. “A shipping network is the biggest problem,” he says. “You can only work within a certain area.” Architects must consider when to use prefab components or when site-built sections work better, he adds. Flexibility as a designer is important too. Avoid flourishes that “hold up an assembly line,” he says. “You need to be smart about what you want to do and in what time span.”
The firm has three weeHouses in development and others in the wings. Many are vacation homes because, says Warner, early adopters take bigger risks with occasional houses. But he sees broader appeal and great potential for prefab. What intrigues him is the promise of factory-built houses to make good design “more affordable and accessible."