When we wrote our first retrospective cover story on prefabricated architecture the world was a very different place. It was January/February 2005, near the pinnacle of the housing boom. Architects were a starry-eyed bunch then, wondering how they could play a greater role in shaping the delivery of good design to the middle-income masses. They latched onto factory-built houses as a promising alternative to all the merchant builder “product” that proliferated in the nation’s suburbs and exurbs. The idea was compelling: Spread the cost of an architect’s clever design thinking over multiple executions. After all, what made custom residential architecture so expensive was and is the one-off prototype approach.
For a while, prefab captured the imagination of the press, too, and the legions of “cultural creatives” who wanted better-looking houses than they could afford under the old paradigm. Even Warren Buffett purchased an old-line manufactured housing company, Clayton Homes, with ambitions to do hip modular. Similarly, venerable kit companies like Acorn Deck House Co., redubbed Empyrean, and Lindal, of the post-and-beam chalets, retooled to embrace the new future of off-site construction led by architects.
Several fleet-footed, newly minted prefab visionaries emerged from the pack. In 2000, Rocio Romero designed one of the first standout modern prefab houses, a 970-square-foot vacation home on the Chilean coast for her mother: The building was simple and beautiful and stirred such strong buyer interest, Romero decided to market it as the LV Home. In just over 10 years, she’s sold more than 160 iterations of them. In 2003, Resolution: 4 Architecture won Dwell magazine’s first modular design competition. (Our CEO, Frank Anton, who was a member of the jury, asked at the time if I had heard of the firm; the answer was no.) However, I had heard of Ray Kappe, FAIA, who also was on the jury, and Ralph Rapson, FAIA, who was a finalist. Both of these well-known architects were involved in modular housing’s first stirrings back in the ’50s; they were early true believers.
Around this time as well, Jennifer Siegal’s Office of Mobile Design won attention for its innovative ideas about portable structures that sit lightly on the land. The company’s SwellHouse and a number of other prototypes came out of this laboratory approach. In 2004, Michelle Kaufmann, AIA, LEED AP, launched her breakthrough Glidehouse exhibition in Menlo Park, Calif., under the auspices of Sunset magazine. Twenty-thousand curious visitors toured the handsome building that looked nothing like preconceived notions of a manufactured house. The same bonanza year brought Toby Long’s NowHouse and Charlie Lazor’s FlatPak prototype.
In 2006, Kappe joined the fray and, with Steve Glenn of LivingHomes, built the first LEED Platinum house in the country—a modern modular in Santa Monica.
Heady times, indeed. Maybe, we were all starting to think, the time had finally come for factory-built housing. Then, in 2007, the bottom fell out of the market for any kind of housing. Five years later, we’re still awaiting a housing recovery and delivery on the promise of prefab. Is it DOA, or just a dream deferred? Senior editor Meghan Drueding examines the body of evidence in her prefab series beginning with the article "Revisiting Modern Prefab."
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