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Four ways North American homes are looking more like Northern Europe

Exterior view of the HELA 1280.

Modular houses have had a bad rap in North America – a hangover, perhaps, from the mail-order homes once sold through catalogue or the tracts of identical postwar prefabs. Now, a growing number of architects are looking to Northern Europe, where modular is anything but mediocre. Celebrating prefab's sustainability and durability, they've taken the concept high-end and high-design. Beyond the economical and environmental benefits, modernist modular has huge aesthetic payoffs – streamlining the architectural process and increasing creative control. Hadani Ditmars looks at some striking examples

Simple luxury

With their latest prototype, Toronto-based designer Jason Halter and developer Michael de Jong are taking modular design to a whole new – and accessible – level. Their firm Mekaworld's two-storey house – created from shipping-container-sized custom steel frames, clad in cedar and mass-produced from 70-per-cent-recycled material – is available starting at about $115 a square foot.

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The energy-efficient houses promise to be so durable that the firm is now working on designs for some of those who lost their homes in Hurricane Sandy. Interior details like Italian porcelain sinks in the bathroom and a choice of stained oak, maple or bamboo flooring offer an unexpected level of luxury.

Multistorey modular

With his new Monad building in Vancouver, Oliver Lang of LWPAC has created a high-end, multi-storey modular dwelling. Built on a 33-foot wide site – the standard for a single-family lot in Vancouver – Monad not only allows for higher residential density but also adheres to all the latest green-building standards.

By opening up the building with a central courtyard, Lang created a "two-sided" effect, where instead of competing for windows, bedrooms look out onto a landscaped inner courtyard, and living space opens up to a view of mountains and water to the north and the street and park to the south. To maximize light and cross-ventilation, units also look onto light wells.

All units sold within weeks of being put on the market – at relatively affordable prices for Vancouver's Westside – indicating a clear demand for this kind of housing.

The house as lightbox

Vancouver architect Tony Robins, known for his residential modernist design, opened a prefab factory with a partner in 2009. Preform produced modules that were complete – with electrical plumbing, tiling, paint, glazed windows and millwork – a prefab first. The "I house" module, a 500-square-foot home that can be delivered wherever a small truck can drive, can easily be doubled into a two-bedroom unit, with a linking three-foot wide glass corridor.

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The house features open aluminum curtain wall glazing on one side and and an energy-efficient material called Parklex hugging the backside – with a low horizontal window slat on the corner edge. The house reads like a Japanese-inspired lightbox, grounded by a green roof.

Cabin in the woods

Toronto's Kohn Shnier Architects were honoured with a 2010 Governor-General's medal for their prefab cottage for two families in Muskoka. The 5,100-square-foot structure of unfinished cedar, zinc cladding, mirrored glazing and galvanized steel shimmers like an aquiline creature poised between forest and lakeside.

Comprised of seven modules that required less than a month to construct in an off-site facility operated by Royal Homes, the "cottage" is 124 feet long but only 16 feet wide. The unusual dimensions offer a variety of living spaces along the length, while the width offers a cozier scale and lakeside views from every room.

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