They’re luxurious, livable works of art, with high-concept designs, function-meeting-form, and best of all, they won’t collapse in a tornado. Here, a photo-gallery of our faves.
A 2003 Dwell magazine contest invited 16 architects to submit their best prefab designs, and that competition is almost single-handedly responsible for launching the current modern prefab movement. This new breed of prefab is the product of edgy architects of the black-square-rimmed-glasses variety who’ve learned how to make nice with a handful of modular home manufacturers who realized their future shouldn’t be limited to trailer parks and flyover states.
And yes, they still come on those Wide Load trailers that you curse on the highway. The difference between these modular homes and the ones tornadoes eat for breakfast is that you get hardwood floors instead of short shag, brushed stainless steel hardware instead of faux antique brass, and recessed lighting instead of cottage cheese ceilings.
High-end modern prefab houses aren’t exactly cheap—this is not Philip Johnson within reach. You’ll easily spend $200-400 a square foot ($400k and up for a two bedroom). But to look for a pure cost rationale in these houses misses the point. They are just plain gorgeous.
If a subtle cost benefit isn’t quite enough to make you rush out and buy one, the much tighter control of the construction schedule should help rationalize the purchase—and who can put a price on a good rationalization? There’s also the green angle, if that’s your thing—floor-to-ceiling windows that exploit available light, optional rooftop solar cells that give back to the grid, “responsible” wood, etc. But let’s be honest, you’re not really pinching pennies here, and you’re not going to stop global warming anytime soon, but you’ll look really good making a symbolic effort at both. So don’t think of this as bargain bin Bauhaus or Ralph Nader chic, but rather as a series of somewhat valid excuses to make a very cool decision. It’s time to build your little glass box of dreams…
Flatpak House founder and owner Charlie Lazor specializes in panelized prefab (a la Sears catalogue homes of yore). His most stunning homes have powder-coated multi-color steel siding panels suggestive of a Rubik’s Cube, or if Piet Mondrian had tried his hand at house painting. Lazor became interested in prefab while designing and manufacturing furniture (He’s the co-founder of Bludot, a modern furniture manufacturer and retailer). Making furniture, says Lazor, made him “interested in product that could be manufactured in batches—so I asked the question, why can’t modern houses be like the rest of the product world and capture all the benefits of volume production?” According to Lazor, his prefab houses usually cost 15 to 20% less than the site-built homes he also designs at his Minnesota-based architectural firm, Lazor Office. Lazor’s typical prefab clients are “software designers or engineers, people who like an orderly process and an expected outcome.” Flatpak homes always come in at one or two percent plus or minus the contract price, which Lazor says is “unheard-of” with conventional on-site construction.
The winner of Dwell magazine’s 2003 prefab contest was New York-based architectural firm, Resolution 4 Architecture. Their design strategy involves working within the limits of the modular home industry rather than trying to make that industry adjust to them. Says Resolution 4’s co-founder, Joseph Tanney: “The history of prefab has showed us that architects designed a product to sell and then had to invent a manufacturing method. We looked at what already exists, and attempted to work within that industry.”
Tanney’s firm had been researching modern modular prior to the Dwell competition, and had developed a theory Tanney calls, “The Modern Module.” What that means to their clients is choosing between a series of seven Lego-like modules that you get to arrange with Res 4 designers, so that, “every house is custom and off-the-shelf at the same time,” says Tanney. Res 4 homes cost about $250 per square foot, and they have been shipped as far afield as Hawaii.
Los Angeles-based Marmol-Radziner gives clients the option of creating their own custom prefab homes from scratch, or basing them on pre-existing templates. Clients then choose from a long list of custom finishes: walnut cabinets, bamboo flooring, Miele dishwashers, Sub-Zero fridges––nothing tract-house-esque about these. In fact, Marmol-Radziner’s Moab “Desert House” was the first prefab ever to be featured in Architectural Digest. Prices range from $200 to $400 per square foot. “The biggest tangible benefit [to prefab] is controlling the building schedule,” says Todd Jerry, COO of Marmol-Radziner. “By the time you finish the foundation, we can start delivering completed modules.” The future of prefab, according to Jerry, is all about building in volume. “We recently did a project for the city of Santa Monica where we designed 20 modern green mobile homes. In that case, you have volume and you’re moving product down an assembly line and getting true economies,” says Jerry. “The real growth in this industry is going to come from working with developers and doing things in multiples.”
STORY by Stinson Carter