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Despite tough times, prefab home design continues to surprise and delight Add to ...



The century-old dream of providing architecturally sophisticated, sustainable, factory-built housing for the millions took a serious hit with the shuttering of California designer Michelle Kaufmann's factory and studio.

For several years before her operation closed down last spring, Ms. Kaufman's clean-lined prefabricated schemes were deluged with praise in the architectural press. Some fans believed that the vision of Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius and other 20th-century apostles of prefab would be fulfilled at last.

Then came the perfect storm that blew away Ms. Kaufmann's office: the severe slump in the U.S. housing market, the credit squeeze and,most important of all, the failure of designer prefab to find a sizeable niche. (The Kaufmann studio found buyers for only about 40 homes.)

But architects are resilient folk, and they keep dreaming even when hard times make the going difficult. I am quite sure we haven't heard the last of Michelle Kaufmann. Nor does there appear to be any shortage of designers who, despite economic difficulties, are thinking up houses constructed with assembly line materials and methods. Here are a few that I've come across.

Homestead House is the handiwork of acclaimed Los Angeles artist/designer Michael Jantzen. Inspired by the agricultural structures scattered across the American corn belt, this scheme explores the use of commercially available steel building systems to create innovative housing. The basic modules in these systems are the flat panel and the semi-cylindrical arch. Variously cut and bolted together in any configuration the client likes, these elements add up to something that is strikingly contemporary in appearance, and low-cost, strong and readily recyclable to boot.

In keeping with a recent trend in residential prefab thinking, Mr. Jantzen proposes Homestead House as an off-grid dwelling, reliant on photovoltaic cells and a small wind turbine for its energy needs. But the house need not be as survivalist as all that. One can easily imagine this project in well-wired cottage country, or on a weekend farm not far from the city - wherever, in fact, the goal isto combine modern living and modern design with a touch of nostalgia for the traditional architecture of rural North America.

There's probably not a prefab home on Earth more different from Homestead House than Madrid architect Antón García-Abril Ruiz's Hemeroscopium House. (The Greek word means, I am told, the place where the sun sets.) Constructed in just seven days from immense prefabricated concrete beams, this building perhaps gives the same pleasure a Torontonian feels when walking under thehighest elevated traffic deck of the Gardiner Expressway: There's something wonderful about all that weight hoisted into the sky, one feels the air is brighter and clearer beneath it. So it is, I suspect, with this house: A great, unique calm prevails in the glass-walled interior under the colossal I-beams that compress and define it.

Concrete has occasionally been touted as a cheap, readily available, mass-manufactured building material for prefab architects.

But despite the popularity of the stuff with early modern architects - Miesvan der Rohe designed a splendid concrete country house in the early 1920s - it has never really caught on (except in tall building construction).

Concrete has been considered too massive, perhaps too proletarian in character for single-family residential use. What's interesting about Hemeroscopium House is its architect's exploitation of these very properties that have long made concrete unattractive. While not everyone would like to live under a roof with the heft of an elevated highway, Mr. García-Abril's experiment is bold and exciting.

But so much for avant-garde prefab. The old idea of inexpensive, high-quality factory-manufactured houses for the masses lives on in the well-known Philadelphia office of Kieran Timberlake.

Last year, the firm inaugurated its LivingHomes series of prefab dwellings, starting at around $200 a square foot, which doesn't include shipping, installation or foundation costs.

Style has been sacrificed to efficiency - the units are boxy and flat-topped - but the efficiencies of LivingHomes are considerable. Green components include recycled steel, glass tiles and window frames and water-saving fixtures. According to its promoters, this prefab system features reduced water and energy consumption and less construction waste.

Living in such a house could surely make one feel moral and modern. But whatever happened to beauty, which was also part of the promise of the historic prefab ideal? Michelle Kaufmann never forgot about beauty, and built it into every house she designed. It's also heartening to note that, even in the midst of tough economic times, prefab architects such as Mr. Jantzen and Mr. García-Abril are remembering that green and beautiful belong together.

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