Prefabulous

Michael Webb has written 20 books on architecture and design, most recently "Art/Invention/House" and "Adventurous Wine Architecture."

"Some assembly required" can be the most daunting phrase in the English language, especially as the holidays roll around. However, the frustration of piecing together toys and furniture pales beside the challenge you face in building a house. Design, permits and construction can stretch 18 months or more, and every step is vulnerable to the weather and the contractor's crew. It's a costly, messy and unpredictable process, which is why for more than 80 years progressive architects have dreamed of prefabricated houses built on production lines like automobiles and airplanes.

"Prefabrication is not an end in itself, but a means of creating an affordable modern living environment," architect Leo Marmol says. He and Ron Radziner, partners in the Los Angeles firm of Marmol Radziner + Associates, have erected a factory-built house in Desert Hot Springs that is the prototype for a modular design that they will manufacture themselves. It's the latest in a long line of attempts to make home construction more rational.

Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier pursued that goal throughout the 1920s, and Buckminster Fuller dedicated most of his life to the concept, finally hitting the jackpot with the geodesic dome. Fuller also conceived the Dymaxion house, an aluminum rotunda suspended from a central pole, and thousands of orders were placed in 1946 for a design that was far ahead of its time. Investors believed that the house could be made in factories that had been producing bomber aircraft, but Fuller needed more time to perfect its innovative features. The venture collapsed. A surviving prototype recently was restored and installed in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., to show what might have been.

The practice of shipping pre-assembled units and putting them together on-site can be traced to 1624, when a panelized wood house was shipped from England to Cape Ann, Mass. In 1908--the same year that Henry Ford began producing Model Ts--the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue offered a mail-order kit of parts for traditionally styled homes. They were priced as low as $650, and nearly 100,000 were sold through 1940. Today's tract-home builders make extensive use of prefabricated assemblies behind their ersatz Cape Cod or Mediterranean facades, and everyone is familiar with the wide-load ranch house, a.k.a. the double-wide.

The Modernists' dream inspires each generation of architects, and prefab is suddenly hot. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis are presenting major exhibitions on the subject, and a prefabricated house by French designer Jean Prouve, which had stood in Africa for 50 years, was exhibited last month in the courtyard of UCLA's Hammer Museum.

In the last three years, innovative prefab projects have proliferated from coast to coast. Dwell magazine hosted design competitions, promoted prize-winning models and found firms to produce them. In San Francisco, architect Michelle Kaufmann could barely afford to build a simple house for herself and her husband, but is now producing two factory-built versions of that one-off structure. In Venice, designer Jennifer Siegal's Office of Mobile Design is developing innovative solutions, and architect Wes Jones is finding new ways to use steel shipping containers. In February, the partnership of Linda Taalman and Alan Koch will complete its prefabricated iT house in Orange County. The sleek aluminum-frame glass pavilion can be customized with one of several artist-designed vinyl skins, which provide shade, privacy and a distinctive look.

Marmol Radziner is best known for its restoration of classic modern houses by Richard Neutra, Rudolf M. Schindler and John Lautner, and that experience spawned their latest venture. To show potential buyers what they can expect, Marmol experimented on himself and his wife, Alisa Becket. Their newly completed weekend house in Desert Hot Springs was fabricated by a Riverside company that specializes in commercial modular construction. If you didn't know that it had been trucked in as 10 modules that were lowered into place with a mobile crane and bolted together, you'd think that it was one of the firm's sleek minimalist houses. The low-slung deep green boxes and covered decks are mounted on a recessed concrete block foundation. The slender steel posts and glazing bars contribute to the illusion that the house is floating over the desert floor. Expansive windows open up the interior to long vistas, and open walkways frame the San Jacinto Mountains. In its lightness and fusion of indoors and outdoors, it evokes Neutra's 60-year-old Kaufmann house, which the firm restored in the mid-1990s.

The open plan, expanses of glass and strong connection to the landscape express the classic Modernist vision. A path leads up a gentle rise from the detached carport to a flight of shallow steps and a recessed entry. A hall separates the master bedroom from the kitchen-dining-living area, which opens onto a covered terrace and the pool. A walkway leads to the guest bedroom and a detached studio, which are perpendicular to the main house.

The Marmols have a new baby, Emilia, so they soon will use every part of the house. For Alisa, who is the granddaughter of Welton Becket, the architect of the Capitol Records building, it's a dramatic contrast to their Venice apartment. "At night, it feels very remote and you can't see or hear the neighbors," she says. "Only the coyotes howling."

In planning their four basic prefab models that range in size from 660 to 2,650 square feet, plus extensive deck areas, Marmol Radziner tried to avoid the mistakes that have bedeviled other attempts at standardization. By creating modules rather than a kit of posts and panels, 90% of the fabrication can be done at the factory. The recycled steel frames ensure rigidity and minimize the need for solid walls. The modules' dimensions (57 feet by 12 feet by 12 1/2 feet) are determined by what can be hauled on a California highway. Wiring, plumbing and cabinetry are built-in, and the firm's website allows buyers to upgrade the standard equipment and materials and vary colors. They can build their own foundations, secure permits and pick up the modules at the factory door, or turn everything over to Marmol Radziner for "soup-to-nuts" service. A fully installed two-bedroom, with 1,250 square feet of interior space and 400 square feet of covered deck, is $385,000. (This price excludes any site work, landscaping, pool or garage.) Shipping each module costs $5 a mile outside a 200-mile radius from their Vernon factory, so these houses can be built out of state at a competitive price.

For the customer, buying prefabrication is similar to ordering a car, selecting the options and color, and driving it away. That's a big savings in time, hassle and cost, and you know in advance what you are getting. The best prefabricated houses are environmentally friendly and minimize waste, site traffic and inconvenience to neighbors. But, as Marmol concedes, "until there's a greater acceptance of modern living, projects like these are unlikely to have great impact on the market, no matter how great the economies."

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