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A modern home that’s a little bit prefab, a little bit not

If a hybrid car cost less than a conventional car, would you buy one?

Think about it: a clean, green, guilt-free electric engine, but with the safety net of a small gasoline backup.

What about a hybrid house? If there was a way to combine the advantages of factory prefabrication – no weather delays, a quick turnaround, less material waste and preapprovals of electrical and plumbing – with things only a traditional stick-built house can achieve, such as site-specific modification, a European kitchen, or the opportunity to pick from a rainbow of finishes, you'd go for that, too, right? And if it was cheaper than stick-built, it'd be a slam-dunk, right?

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Oh, you've never heard of a hybrid house? Neither had I, until I met Studio Architectonic's husband-and-wife team of Gary Yen and Maggie Ma.

"The biggest idea in this whole concept is taking the best of both worlds," says Mr. Yen, 35, while seated at the dining room table in his bright, two-storey, Modernist home. In front of us is a slim, sophisticated fireplace; behind is the gleam of a white Boffi kitchen under a 13-foot ceiling.

Dressed in dark zinc and tan brick punctuated by oversized windows and a jaunty front door canopy, the exterior of Mr. Yen's and Ms. Ma's home is very much in league with the many Modernist dwellings that now dot Toronto's avenues and culs-de-sac, except it cost a fraction of the price and took half the time. On the inside, too, noses are thrown off the prefab scent by a mezzanine level, a sculptural staircase, massive windows looking onto the backyard, and that sexy Italian kitchen.

Unless you were one of the drivers inconvenienced by a police escort along Avenue Road in August, 2012, when four big boxes arrived at 219 Roe Ave. on four tractor-trailer beds, you'd never peg this as partly prefab.

In fact, it was while attending a prefab conference sponsored by Dwell magazine in California a few years ago that inspiration struck. While Mr. Yen had enjoyed some aspects of what he'd seen, most pre-engineered houses were lacking in the sort of high-quality trim, finishes and millwork he'd grown accustomed to specifying for the renovation work he'd done since leaving KPMB Architects in 2007.

So, when he got home, he decided to partner with a manufacturing facility. While locating one wasn't difficult – there are many modular homebuilders in Ontario and Quebec – the real chore was persuading one to move away from the "catalogue" model of rural/vacation homes into the uncharted waters of custom design: "We wanted a full-on, architect's house, if you will," says Mr. Yen. After finding Ontario factories "too conservative," he landed upon a 50-year-old Quebec establishment that accepted his offer. "They see a lot of potential in this," he says.

A deal was struck and Studio Architectonic's engineer met with the Quebec company's engineer. And while Mr. Yen is reluctant to name the factory in case an Ontario firm comes forward, the results speak for themselves: Even with high-end finishes and a customized floor plan, this, the first hybrid house, has clocked in at $325 per square foot. A house that uses mid-grade, domestic finishes, he says, could shave $100 off that figure. Even better, after the couple purchased the lot and demolished the existing bungalow, things came together at a lightening pace. To wit:

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City approval came within one month because the design adhered to zoning bylaws (he cautions that variations could turn this into three months).

During the month spent on drainage and foundation work, construction began at the Quebec factory.

To construct the four 16-foot-wide modules took 14 days. This includes full insulation and drywalling; wiring for audio/video, home security and a "smart-home" system; and rough-ins for plumbing and electrical.

Transportation to the site and craning the boxes onto the foundation each took one day.

The site-specific work, such as the staircase, kitchen, window installation (holes were cut at the factory), the creation of the mezzanine level over the garage, radiant-heated floor installation, HVAC, and a two-person shower in the master bath (to name just a few items) took four months.

"While we were finishing with the painting and stuff, we had a Christmas tree lying in the backyard," says Mr. Yen with a laugh, "and my neighbour saw it and had a bet saying that we wouldn't move in before Christmas."

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They did: "This house is our first run, and we were able to come in within six months."

For the next hybrid house, which the couple would like to design for a client soon, they've challenged each other to cut manufacturing times even further. The real challenge, however, will be battling the popular misconception that modular houses come only in Modern styles (they can do a pitched roof traditional), or that they're a red-tape nightmare, especially in the city.

"There isn't a firm like our studio that puts all the players together," Mr. Yen says. "You need the homeowner, the manufacturing site, the architect, engineer and the site contractor, who all buy into the idea together.

"If one component falls apart, you can't have it built like this."

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