Like the robot maid and the flying car, the perfect prefab house seems like one of those futuristic promises that never quite come true. You know the house: a light and airy, clean and green 3 BR, 2 BA constructed of renewable, energy-efficient materials—delivered to your doorstep. A modern house you can buy the way you buy almost everything else, with a click of the mouse. A modular house that can be assembled in an afternoon and comes complete, right down to the towel racks in the bathroom. Just plug in the utilities.
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This is the house that Michelle Kaufmann believes she has designed—a young architect's answer to the challenge of bringing good design to the masses. "We want to create sustainable homes, of high quality, for a reasonable price, for the middle classes," says Kaufmann, 38. And to do that, she says, "you need an assembly line."
Not too long ago, Kaufmann bumped into her old boss, architect and design maestro Frank O. Gehry. "You know," he said, "some pretty smart people have tried this and failed." Indeed, several masters of 20th-century architecture saw the promise of prefab—giants such as Walter Gropius, Charles and Ray Eames and Joseph Eichler—but they could not redeem it.
But where others have failed, Kaufmann sees a way. Gropius or the Eameses could have built the factories to make their prefabricated homes, she says, but they lacked a crucial piece of technology. "The Internet is the key," she says. "A house is not a toothbrush," meaning a one-size-fits-all, perishable good. "You need and want to interface with the customer," to get a sense of how your building might be tailored to individual needs.
But instead of taking a dozen meetings with an architect, pinning down a hundred details, a Kaufmann prefab buyer meets with her once and then communicates with her through a Web site and by e-mail, selecting from a limited menu of options. "If you had to take meetings, you could never have mass production," says Kaufmann, who grew up in Iowa and holds degrees in architecture from Iowa State and Princeton universities. "But with e-mail, we can make the changes, we can tweak in an instant. You can keep the process moving forward."
The prefab house is hot again, at least in the pages of shelter magazines, and Kaufmann's designs are some of the smartest around; she has "definitively answered the question, ‘Why prefab?'" wrote Allison Arieff when she was editor of dwell magazine. One of them is on view through June 3 at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., in an exhibit titled "The Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture and Design." Another one, a demonstration project Kaufmann did with Sunset magazine in 2004, went up in a parking lot in Menlo Park, California, and was visited by some 25,000 people over two days. On her own she has designed a third, called mkSolaire, tailored more for urban than suburban lots. Kaufmann's firm's Web site (mkd-arc.com) has received some 15,000 inquiries for information on her modular homes.
How many prefabs has Kaufmann built? A dozen. Which hardly constitutes a revolution—high design, tailored prefab still remains more of an idea than a product line, but Kaufmann vows to change that.
She came to her "eureka" moment through personal experience. In 2002, she and her then-new husband, Kevin Cullen, a carpenter and contractor, began to look for a place to live in the San Francisco Bay Area; they quickly confronted the brutal realities of a real estate market gone bananas. Their choices were as frustrating as they are familiar: pay a gazillion dollars for a tear-down in close-in Oakland (and end up with no money to rebuild) or move to the far reaches of former farmland for a long commute from a soul-sucking tract of mini-mansions.
They looked for six months. "It was really depressing," Kaufmann recalls. "I seriously thought about what kinds of bad decisions had I made in my life to end up in a place where we could not afford a home. We actually went into therapy."
So they decided to build a house themselves. They found a narrow lot in suburban Marin County, and Cullen went to work on a Kaufmann design with a simple but beguiling floor plan of connected rectangles, just 1,560 square feet, with an easy flow from space to space—a curtain of glass doors under a shed roof covered with solar panels. They called it the Glidehouse. Friends took a look at the plans and said: Make us one too. "This is the thing," Kaufmann says. "They didn't want me to design them another house. They wanted our house, the exact same house. And that's when I thought, hmm, could we make this in mass production?"