jennifer siegal
office of mobile design
venice, calif.

Jennifer Siegal has worked on a kibbutz in Israel, traveled throughout Southeast Asia observing nomadic structures, and lived at the remote Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. But the most important trip she takes these days is to prosaic Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., where productio

n of her prefab designs takes place. Unlike many of her prefab peers, she works exclusively with one factory. “The facility I use builds one-off things for clients like NASA and Disney,” she says. “I went to them when I realized the manufactured housing industry was not open to change.”

Siegal has always followed her own path. She started thinking seriously about mobile homes while teaching in North Carolina in 1996 and '97, at a time when few architects thought of a trailer as an intentionally designed object. “I noticed all the bad mobile design around me,” she said. “It seemed nobody had been rethinking trailers. I started using them in my classes, having students take old trailers and manufactured housing and rework them.” The concept of movable, flexible structures took hold of her, and it wouldn't let go. The SCI-Arc graduate moved back to Los Angeles in 1997 and started her firm, Office of Mobile Design, the next year.

OMD designs some stick-built projects as well as truly mobile structures such as the interactive, collapsible ice-cream kiosk it did for Häagen-Dazs. With housing, though, its main focus falls somewhere in between. The two prefab prototypes the firm designs and sells, the Portable House and the Swellhouse, both sit on permanent foundations. They bridge the gap between the site-built and the mobile, harnessing the construction quality of the former and the mass production capabilities of the latter.

The modular Portable House is completely assembled at the factory and arrives ready to install. Buyers can choose from 10 floor plans and two sizes, depending on their needs and budget; a 12-foot-by-40-foot unit costs $79,000, and a 12-foot-by-60-foot unit goes for $125,000. The Swellhouse, on the other hand, is a customizable residence made up of panelized walls on a steel frame—components are shipped and assembled on site. It costs about $180 to $200 per square foot to build the Swellhouse in the L.A. area, but costs vary depending on the location and the client's choice of materials.