Green prefab firm Michelle Kaufmann Designs is closing


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Green prefab architecture firm Michelle Kaufmann Designs is calling it quits, a victim of the credit crisis and broader woes in the economy. In a letter sent over Memorial Day weekend, Kaufmann told clients the firm would close by the end of this week. She confirmed the news in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon.

Kaufmann, who worked for Frank Gehry and Michael Graves early in her career, was a pioneer in the so-called modern prefab movement of recent years. She was also one of the first architects to make a persuasive case that prefab design, which reduces construction waste and damage to building sites, among other benefits, was in a number of ways synonymous with sustainability.


After launching her own firm in Northern California in 2004, she oversaw an office that grew to include two dozen staffers, operated its own factory outside Seattle and completed more than 40 prefab houses, most of them on the West Coast. The firm developed several house templates and also offered lighting, sinks and other products on its website.

Kaufmann sold the factory last year and in November trimmed the size of her Oakland office to 17. She thought those moves would help see the firm through the recession. But two factories MKD worked with have gone out of business since then, and clients and potential clients have found it almost impossible to get financing.

‘Being a small company without significant reserves, that was more head wind than we could bear,’ she said.

The news is only the latest chapter in the long, bumpy history of the modern prefab movement. Since the early years of the 20th century, architects including Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius and a long list of California modernists have been trying to figure out why ambitious architecture can’t be turned out in factories the way cars or home furnishings are, taking advantage of economies of scale to bring top-notch residential design to a broad public.

But in every case those dreams have foundered; despite the media attention showered on sleek new designs in the last five years, the newest generation of modern prefab has captured only a tiny sliver of the home-building market. And with the construction costs of site-built houses falling thanks to the recession, prefab may lose some of the cost savings it has enjoyed over traditional architecture.

Kaufmann’s own efforts, she said, were undermined by the economy’s rise and its fall. During the last few years of the housing boom, as she was starting out, many factories were so busy making money with conventional prefab construction that they saw no reason to experiment with more innovative designs. As the economy has soured, many of those same factories have gone out of business entirely. And lenders, who during the boom looked for excuses to approve even the most exotic mortgages, have taken on the kind of conservatism that formerly marked prefab builders.


Kaufmann has been working with her clients -- some with houses in construction, others earlier in the design process -- to put them in a position to build their projects with other firms, if they choose. She said she has been in preliminary talks with large home-building companies that may be interested in producing her designs or working with her as a consultant.

She added that she is particularly drawn, going forward, to the idea of developing multifamily projects rather than individual houses. In many ways that shift matches one in the larger sustainable-design movement, which is increasingly focused on macro issues and green urbanism rather than heralding the performance of a standalone house on a large suburban lot.

‘I want to focus on communities,’ she said, mentioning ‘a new spin’ on co-housing and compounds for groups of families and retirees as two possible models for her consulting work. ‘I think we’re realizing that there is more than one model for the American Dream.’

-- Christopher Hawthorne

(Disclosure: Hawthorne included Kaufmann’s work in his 2005 book on sustainable architecture, ‘The Green House,’ and a full-scale section of one of her firm’s houses was included in a subsequent exhibition at the National Building Museum for which he served as consulting curator.)