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The New Wave

Cheap, green, and gorgeous, prefab homes are becoming a hot trend


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Photo by David Glomb

Lisa Gansky knew she wanted to build a green weekend home. She met with architects and contractors and at one point was walking around with a cute model of the home she planned to build on a prime piece of land at Stinson Beach.

“The trouble was, there was a disconnect between the architects’ beautiful designs and what the general contractors said could be done,” says Gansky, a tech entrepreneur who lives in Oakland. The costs were escalating, and Gansky, whose business interests include an environmental organization, was appalled at the amount of construction waste her house was going to generate—all of which was destined for the landfill—if she went ahead with a “stick-built” home.

 

Prefab Homes
Photo by Joel Koyama

Then she met Michelle Kaufmann, an Oakland-based architect who designs modern prefabricated homes. “Everything came together,” says Gansky. “The whole process was simple and holistic. Now I know I am going to get an affordable home with a fresh aesthetic and lots of green features, including solar panels and a green roof.”

There’s nothing cookie-cutter about the three-story house, which will grace a slope with breathtaking views of the Pacific. Gansky is thrilled with the amount of customization the design has allowed—including using reclaimed timber for some of the posts and beams and the possibility of incorporating her collection of sea glass, gathered over 20 years of visiting the beach, into tailor-made concrete countertops.Gansky is not alone in being enthusiastic about her prefab. Dan Edmonds-Waters has created a dedicated website, www.napaprefab.com, for his Napa prefab home, designed by Missouri-based architect Rocio Romero. “I fell in love with the simple sophistication of the Rocio Romero LV Home,” he says. “I like the clean lines, the large expanse of glass, and the way this home frames nature as art.” Interested in seeing what’s so great about the prefab home? You can rent Edmonds-Waters’s for your next vacation through his website.

Modernist prefabs seem to inspire passion and are in the early stages of a full-blown boom. Beautiful examples, designed by some of our most exciting architects, are sprouting up in the Bay Area.


Photo by John Swain

Why be surprised? In many ways this new generation of high-quality prefabs—with their sleek, contemporary styling—represents the holy grail of housing that frustrated Bay Area residents have been seeking. Prefabricated homes are invariably cost-efficient, fast to build, easy to customize, and environmentally friendly.

Prefabs are defined as homes that are partly or almost wholly manufactured in a factory before being assembled, sometimes in a matter of hours, on-site. In the bad old days, the only nice thing you could say about prefabs was that they were cheap. Now, homes designed by prefab greats such as Michelle Kaufmann at MKD or San Francisco’s Clever Homes bear no relation to the functional but undistinguished tract houses that used to be associated with prefab methods. And prefabs still offer an attractive price point in an inflated property market. Both companies say their preconfigured homes cost about $200 to $300 per square foot, or more if the site presents challenges or the homeowner opts for customizations—some sandblasted glass, a lap pool, or bamboo flooring, perhaps. The average price paid per square foot for resale single-family homes in Contra Costa this year was $398.

Charlie Lazor, designer of the Flatpak home, estimates his models are 20 to 30 percent less expensive than comparable stick-built homes and take half the time to design and build. “We provide a much more controlled process and product,” he says.

 

Photo by Dan Edmonds-Waters


Costs tend to be kept low through economies of scale, short build times, and reduced waste rather than compromises on quality. Indeed, advocates of prefabs would argue that factory-controlled manufacturing, which includes precision cutting, often means lower margins of error and higher standards of craftsmanship.

Developers, motivated by the economies of scale, are jumping on the prefab bandwagon. But in some ways, the very nature of the process is blurring the line between architect and developer. MKD, for instance, is building dozens of single-family homes for clients across the Bay Area, but is also in the planning stages for a development of 24 multifamily homes in San Leandro.

In Southern California, the architectural firm Marmol Radziner has three assembly lines creating steel-frame prefab models at its factory in Vernon, California. The homes are literally shrink-wrapped and delivered to their site complete with walls, plumbing, cabinetry, and appliances. The company’s prototype in Desert Hot Springs is also the beautiful home of Managing Principal Leo Marmol.

Prefabs are also in tune with the times in that they boast impeccable green credentials. Steve Glenn, founder of Los Angeles–based LivingHomes, says that about 40 percent of the construction material for a stick-built house will end up in a landfill. This compares with about 2 percent for prefabs.
 

 

Photo by Emily Hagopian 2005

Glenn’s home in Santa Monica, the first model for LivingHomes, is a marvel of sustainability and was the first residential project in the country to be awarded a LEED Platinum rating by the U.S. Green Building Council—the organization’s highest rating for “leadership in energy and environmental design.” Given that 30 percent of waste output in the United States—136 million tons annually—comes from the construction of buildings, this is not a bad thing. LivingHomes has five homes under contract in the Bay Area and considers the area one of the company’s biggest potential markets.

Many of the companies making prefabs are aiming for LEED status for their homes. Ratings of sustainability extend to the materials, finishes, and fixtures chosen for their models. “Our goal is to make thoughtful, sustainable design available to more people,” says Kaufmann. “If one of our designs doesn’t meet that objective, we won’t make it.”


Photo by CJ Berg/Sunshine Divis

The flexibility afforded by modular homes means you can tweak a house to suit your site or particular tastes before it is built and reconfigure it to meet your needs a few years later—moving a wall to open up a bedroom once the children have flown the coop, for instance, or adding an outside deck by putting in a new floor plate. Prefabs appeal as much to first-time homeowners as to empty nesters and to those, like Gansky and Edmonds-Waters, seeking the sanctuary of a weekend retreat.

It may be preconfigured architecture, but there’s clearly nothing bland or inferior about the prefabs that have been championed in recent years by magazines such as Dwell and websites such as fabprefab.com. The Bay Area has long shown itself to be open to new ideas in architecture—be it embracing an idiosyncratic Bernard Maybeck craftsman in Berkeley in the early 1900s or an envelope-pushing modernist home by Clarence Mayhew in Orinda 50 years later. Twenty-first–century prefabs look likely to find their place in that honorable tradition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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