Prefab’s in need of a new model


It’s always a little risky to see in one headline about the architecture business, or in the fate of a single firm, a parable for the profession as a whole. But news that the prefab specialist Michelle Kaufmann has suddenly closed her Oakland office and laid off all 17 of her employees does seem to have Larger Symbolism written all over it.

Kaufmann’s is hardly the only prefab firm to face trouble in recent months. Empyrean International, the company that built houses for Dwell magazine’s prefab arm, abruptly shut down last fall. Marmol Radziner, the Los Angeles firm known for smartly designed Neomodern houses, has mothballed its prefab factory in Vernon in what it says is a temporary move.

In a certain sense, of course, this batch of bad news is inseparable from the dismal state of the larger economy. Not to mention that the world of “modern prefab” design -- a catchall term referring to a range of modular and prefabricated residential construction -- has diversified widely in recent years. The work Kaufmann was doing is very different from, say, the kit-of-parts glass house developed by the L.A. firm Taalman Koch Architecture, Lazor Office’s FlatPak or the hulking steel-framed houses Ray Kappe has designed under the Living Homes brand.

But if prefab is foundering again, it is doing so in some depressingly familiar ways. The demise of Michelle Kaufmann Designs resounds with echoes from several corners of prefab’s long history. For nearly a century, hopes of building crisply Minimalist houses in factories -- and in the process democratizing home design -- have always raced ahead of market realities.

When Dwell declared on a 2005 cover that “prefab’s promise” was “good design for everyone,” it was reviving a dream that goes back to the beginning of the modern movement, to the moment when architecture and industrial production first made eyes at each other. In 1931, Le Corbusier praised “the mass-production house, available for everyone” as “incomparably healthier than the old kind (and morally so too) and beautiful.”


The difference this time around was that advanced computing power and milling tools, not to mention encouraging shifts in popular taste, were supposed to help the dream actually come true. Kaufmann and others also made a compelling case that factory-built architecture, particularly because it minimizes waste and damage to building sites, is also green architecture.

And yet, if anything, the age-old gap between ambition and the bottom line has grown wider than ever. High-design prefab remains a highly specialized market with products that make the most sense as a second-house option or for wealthy clients willing to help subsidize new explorations in modular or prepackaged residential architecture.

That ought to give prefab evangelists pause. If architects couldn’t capitalize on the boom years -- with their easy financing, overpriced traditional houses and cheerleading design press -- to move closer to mass production, you have to wonder if they will ever be able to.

What has weighed on these firms most heavily, several leading prefab architects told me in recent days, are problems in the factory model exacerbated -- or exposed -- by the credit crisis. Building single-order prefab houses in one factory -- particularly a factory that does only high-design prefab, or, even worse, in your own factory -- is essentially impossible now, since virtually no bank will loan the full cost of a prefab house upfront.

On top of that, as Leo Marmol told me, “a factory is by its very nature about continuous work flow,” which is to say it thrives on stability and predictability and is great for building iPhones and maybe not so great for Neomodern three-bedrooms. Both home building and architecture as professions are known for the extreme nature of their boom-and-bust cycles. And the drop in lending as well as industry optimism from the recent boom to the current bust -- from early 2007, say, to today -- has been unusually roller-coaster steep.

The most appealing prefab designs of this latest generation were aimed at young, sophisticated, generally urban audiences -- precisely the group most frustrated by the skyrocketing real-estate prices of the last decade, particularly in cities up and down the West Coast. They were produced by architects who may have dreamed of bringing design to the masses but in reality delivered a kind of boutique prefab that had as much in common with a high-design atelier as a company selling more traditional prefabricated housing.

How to make the leap to high-volume business remains prefab’s central dilemma. You don’t become the prefab version of a big residential developer by building houses one at a time on steep city lots and in vacation spots, as many high-design prefab firms have done. You reach that point by colonizing big swaths of flat land and building 1,500 identical houses at the same time.

Getting to that scale, of course, also requires taking advantage of, and selling to, mass taste, which may explain why some prefab architects say they are happy to stay small and pursue more experimental work. The house-buying public may be a good deal more sophisticated than it was a decade ago -- but is it sophisticated enough to make a high-design prefab subdivision viable or, more to the point, to convince some big home builder to fill a bunch of its factories with sleek modern boxes instead of faux Colonials?

Kaufmann agrees that a suburban, mass-production model is never likely to work for high-design prefab. She sees her future largely in helping develop prefab infill apartment complexes and cooperative housing.

There is a lot to recommend that approach: It brings prefab right where its consumer base lives -- in cities -- and it allows the field to connect to a larger discussion now happening in this country about whether we can live greener lives by trading in the 5,000-square-foot house in the suburbs for something more efficient.

But the shift Kaufmann talks about also involves the tricky sociological process of detaching modern prefab from the ideal of the single-family house. Most people in this country -- even most city-dwelling, design-loving sophisticates -- still locate their dreams of residential bliss under the roof of a detached house. That roof might be pitched or it might be Gropius-flat, but it still covers a house and not an apartment. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to argue that such dreams are part of our DNA in this country and thus impossible to outgrow. But they are deeply ingrained in the national psyche, not to mention in building codes and a political culture -- especially in younger cities like Los Angeles -- designed to protect the sanctity of the neighborhood made up of single-family houses.

It’s encouraging, in other words, that our minds are opening to the idea of denser living, which may finally give modern prefab a foothold in American cities. Whether our hearts -- and our politicians -- will follow is another matter.