Magazine article Newsweek

Houses of the Future-Now; Prefab: When You Hear 'Modular Home,' You Think 'Double-Wide.' Today's Prefabricated-Housing Designers Want You to Think Again

Magazine article Newsweek

Houses of the Future-Now; Prefab: When You Hear 'Modular Home,' You Think 'Double-Wide.' Today's Prefabricated-Housing Designers Want You to Think Again

Article excerpt

Byline: Cathleen McGuigan and Anna Kuchment

If you're cruising through the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York this week, stroking the buttery leather Italian chairs, coveting the coolest couches--and wrinkling your nose at the design world's inevitable excesses--you'll come upon a one-room "house," all glass and wood, filled with nifty, well-priced furniture from Blu Dot (page 64). But don't just check out the urbane modernist chairs and chests: pay attention to the sleek little structure itself. Designed by architect Charlie Lazor, one of Blu Dot's trio of founders, it's a sample of Flatpak, an ingenious system of 2-D panels that, like their furniture, can be shipped and assembled on-site into a well-crafted prefab house in far less time--and for less money-- than it would take to build from scratch. It may look handsomely unassuming sitting in a cavernous trade show, but trust us: it represents the first revolution in American housing in decades.

You can't measure this mini-phenomenon in numbers. Of the more than 1.18 million new houses built in the United States last year, "modular" units accounted for only about 3 percent--and that includes double-wides. But with Flatpak and its ilk, we're talking about architect-designed dwellings. These houses can have either flat or pitched roofs, but either way they're unabashedly modern --which is not just a statement of style, but of values. Designed in reaction to the overblown developer houses that dominate the market, quality modern prefabs tend to be smaller and more energy-efficient, with open, flexible spaces. While the number of such innovative prefabs sold last year would barely make a ripple in the housing pool, consumer interest is rising fast. "There's more demand than supply right now," says Michael Sylvester, who started the Web site fabprefab.com in 2003 and now gets 45,000 visitors a month. When Allison Arieff, editor of Dwell magazine, wrote the book "Prefab" in 2002, most projects she found were in Europe--or on the drawing board. Today she says she's bombarded with inquiries. "It's been a bit of a surprise."

Skyrocketing real-estate prices are obviously pushing people toward new housing ideas, but so are simple demographics. Shelter-magazine editors, who've been avidly covering the prefab trend, understand what developers don't: that young urban professionals who shop at IKEA and Banana Republic may not want a mini-McMansion when the time comes to buy their first house. In fact, Flatpak's Lazor, who lives in Minneapolis, and architect Michelle Kaufmann, who's based in San Francisco, were each driven to design their first prefab because they couldn't find what they wanted to buy in their price range. "This came out of my utter frustration with insanely inefficient and insanely expensive houses," says Lazor. "Prefab is for people who are busy but have a good design sense," says Kaufmann, who once worked for Frank Gehry in Los Angeles. "They want to live in a clean, green space they can afford, both in terms of time and money." Kaufmann now has 36 of her Glidehouses under contract, and she's just introduced her Breezehouse, a model entirely built in the factory, right down to the towel rods. …

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