Magazine article The New Yorker

Some Assembly Required; the Sky Line

Magazine article The New Yorker

Some Assembly Required; the Sky Line

Article excerpt

It may be that the future of American housing is visible on a seventy-acre farm in Perryville, Missouri, a town of some eight thousand people in the rolling hills of the southeastern part of the state. The farm is owned by Rocio Romero, a thirty-four-year-old architect. In 2000, her parents asked her to design a simple, inexpensive vacation home in Chile, where they grew up. Romero came up with a sleek, metal-clad box that she named the L.V., for the place where it was built--Laguna Verde, a beach town an hour and a half west of Santiago. It wasn't quite as cheap as her parents had hoped it would be--the cost was thirty-five thousand dollars--but during the construction process Romero realized that she had some ideas about how to attack a problem that has frustrated architects for most of the past century: the fact that modern houses aren't produced in a more mechanized manner. Apart from the mobile-home industry, no one turning out houses on an assembly line has made an impact in the housing business. Most mobile homes are aluminum-sided banalities that are supposed to look like traditional suburban houses but fool nobody, and whose sole virtue is that they are cheap. Modern architecture, of course, tends to be expensive. It often looks machine-made and features the latest technology, yet modern houses are almost always built largely by hand, even when they are intended to embody the aesthetic of the computer age.

Romero's original L.V. fit the usual pattern of a laboriously designed house that looked, deceptively, like a mass-produced industrial object. In 2001, she resolved to make a house that could be manufactured in one place and erected in another. The L.V., she decided, could be replicated ad infinitum, and sold as a prefabricated kit. She and her husband, Cale Bradford, a health-care executive, were living in St. Louis, where Romero had set up an office--Bradford comes from Missouri--and they bought a farm seventy-five miles south of the city. On a clearing overlooking a broad meadow, Romero erected an improved version of the L.V. house, which she could use as a sales model as well as a weekend getaway.

The L.V. is eleven hundred and fifty square feet, with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a large living-dining area, and a small kitchen. (A stretched-out version, which Romero calls the L.V.L.--Laguna Verde Large--has room for a third bedroom or an expanded master suite.) Romero's farm now features a second prototype, the Fish Camp, a one-room metal cottage on stilts, which she placed overlooking a winding creek; sliding glass doors flood the interior with light, making it an ideal artist's studio. Later this month, she plans to erect a sample of her third design, the Base Camp, a medium-sized guest house, as soon as it rolls off the assembly line at a factory in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Romero's farm recently became her full-time residence. She has turned a pair of old hog barns into a workshop, where two employees assemble the wall panels that make up the L.V. kits; the process takes about a week. So far, Romero has sold twenty-five kits, starting at thirty-two thousand dollars each. If you buy one of Romero's L.V. kits, you do not get an entire house. You get the exterior walls and the floors, the roof framing, special assembly tools, and lots of instructions. It is up to builders to construct a foundation according to Romero's plans, and to add such items as windows, doors, electricity, plumbing, and a roof, for which the architect provides exacting specifications. Buyers pay for shipping their future house on a flatbed truck, which runs roughly $2.25 per mile from Perryville. (One of the reasons Romero leaves out a lot of the house, she says, is that her system allows contractors to finish the work in accordance with local building codes. It also allows her to fit the parts she manufactures onto a single truck.) The final cost of one of Romero's houses depends on the cost of transportation, labor, and materials--it is cheaper to build an L. …

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