michelle kaufmann
michelle kaufmann designs
novato, calif.


Architect Michelle Kaufmann and her contractor husband, Kevin Cullen, are conducting the ultimate prefab experiment. They're building their own Modern, site-built house in Marin County, Calif., while Kaufman sells the same design as a modular house she calls the Glidehouse. So far, there's not much of a contest as to which one she prefers. “It's costing us 50 to 60 percent more to have the house site-built, and after 11 months it's still not finished,” she says. “I'd do it as a prefab in a heartbeat.”

Kaufmann's personal and professional experiences make her an effective spokesperson for prefab. She spent five years working for Frank Gehry, FAIA, serving as the project architect on such buildings as the Condé Nast Cafeteria in New York City and, in Sarajevo, the rebuilt National Library of Bosnia. When she left Gehry's office and moved to San Francisco's Bay area in 2002, she and Cullen were shocked by the cost of housing in the area. “It was just so painful,” she says. “Since my husband is a builder, we decided to build a house for ourselves instead. Our friends and colleagues liked the drawings and started asking if they could have one too.”

And so the idea of the Glidehouse was born. After much searching, Kaufmann convinced two Canadian modular housing factories, one in Vancouver, B.C., and one in Toronto, to produce her design. She lined up a well-established modular project management company, Construction Resource Group (CRG), out of Seattle, Wash., to oversee the factory process, shipping, and installation. Marketing consultant Marshall Mayer signed on to handle sales through his Web site, LiveModern.com. In February 2004 the Glidehouse went on sale, ready to be snapped up by eager young buyers.

Or not-so-young, as it turns out. The variation in age and income level of her 20-and-counting Glidehouse customers has surprised Kaufmann. “I thought it would be younger people and first-time buyers,” she says. “It is, but it's also people later in life who aren't so much interested in affordability as in living lightly on the land.” The prototype comes in four standard sizes ranging from 672 to 2,016 square feet and has a base cost of $120 per square foot, not including shipping, site work, and upgrades. Its simple Modern form reminds her of the rusted agricultural buildings she admired during her Iowa childhood.

“They were designed not for how they look but for how they function,” she says. Some clients buy the smallest unit to use as a guesthouse or an addition to an existing house—one is adding a Glidehouse onto his Eichler home in Palo Alto, Calif.