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Part IV: Breaking up With Prefab for Good

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Welcome to Curbed's original series Homeward Bound, in which long-affirmed city dweller and design journalist Karrie Jacobs documents her process as a first-time home builder. Jacobs, a professional observer of the man-made landscape, was the founding editor of Dwell magazine and the author of The Perfect $100,000 House: A Trip Across America and Back in Pursuit of a Place to Call Home (Viking, 2006). This eight-part series is a continuation of Jacobs's pursuit to solve the puzzle of modest, modern, and regional domestic architecture, using a recently-acquired parcel in upstate New York as a first-person case study.

My role in the great 21st-century Prefab Revival was largely an accident of timing. In mid-1999, I applied for a job editing a new magazine about modern residential design. Around that same moment, I met with a pair of New York architects, Sulan Kolatan and Bill MacDonald, who had a wondrous scheme to plant an outlandishly freeform house in the Connecticut countryside: It would be composed of a fiberglass shell manufactured by a boat company and was intended to serve as a prototype for a legion of similarly fabricated homes.

I was so smitten with the concept that it became the inspiration for the sample magazine issue I was asked to dream up as part of the interview process. "Let's say the issue's theme is Mass Production," I wrote in my proposal. "The premise is that the notion of manufactured housing keeps coming back. It is the ultimate modernist fantasy. It's an idea that has intrigued (and more or less defeated) Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, and other less illustrious characters."

I got the job. The magazine was Dwell. And my audition became, in April 2001, the first in a long line of Dwell special issues about prefabricated housing. Sadly, Kolatan and MacDonald's amazing concept hadn't seen the light of day by my deadline (and, no surprise, was never built.). Finding real examples of prefabrication was, in 2001, extremely difficult. The cover house, designed by AndersonAnderson (a firm, run by brothers, originally based in Seattle, but now in San Francisco), was actually a remarkably low-tech, low-budget example of panelized construction, its components fabricated by hand in a warehouse and assembled on site on an island near Tacoma, Washington. The construction budget was around $86,000 (with the homeowner and her dad pitching in on labor).

I now have mixed feelings about the whole prefab phenomenon, which went on to become an integral part of Dwell's DNA, especially after my tenure. It bugs me that many of the architects who embraced prefab were actually still in the business of selling pricey custom homes. Marmol Radziner's prefabs, for example, sell for $600 to $800 a square foot, akin to their site-built homes. (That firm shut down its much-hyped factory during the economic downturn, so it's hard to say how sustainable even the priciest one-off prefab process is). The whole idea of prefab was to mass produce homes and, in doing so, make good architecture more affordable, but there was nothing mass about most of what ensued. Still, when my husband Ed and I began thinking about how to get a house built on our land, some variation on prefab seemed like an obvious choice.

Our program was pretty simple. We wanted a low-slung house that sat on our hill with a wall of glass facing south, toward town and the mountains. We needed a master bedroom and a quiet studio, where I could write, at one end of the house, and a noisy studio, where Ed could play his drums, at the opposite end. In between would be a living/dining/kitchen area. We wanted a lot of deck. My most vivid image of how we expect to live is that I'll sit on the front deck every morning with my cup of coffee, tossing balls to the dog. Fetch from the deck was at the top of my list of programmatic requirements. Oh, and we thought we were in a hurry.

My first move was to make a beeline for the AndersonAnderson website. There, I was struck by the Kumamoto Zero House, which they designed for a client in Japan. Built on a $154,000 budget, the house was shoehorned into a tight urban lot. With other houses and commercial buildings clustered around, the setting couldn't be more different than ours, but the house was exactly what I'd envisioned. It's a simple, linear building set on a hill with a wall of glass on the front and clerestory windows along the back. I thought, if we kept the basic plan and made it a bit larger—more American-size than Japanese-size—it could work for us.

In February of last year, we met with Peter and Mark Anderson and talked about how the Kumamoto scheme could be adjusted to meet our needs. The Andersons were amenable, and exactly as I remembered them: very thoughtful and precise. I was excited about the possibility of working with them but Ed, who's a bit of an anarchist, was put off by their highly measured approach. They were just too architect-y for him. Peter Anderson followed up, sending us a proposal. The $500,000 budget they proposed seemed, at the time, high. At this point, it's beginning to look modest.

By that time, we were leaning modular. While the Andersons were the original Dwell prefab cover architects, that label was somewhat inaccurate. The AndersonAnderson approach has often been to build from an array of components and materials that are economical to transport and relatively easy to assemble. By contrast, Chris Krager of Austin, Texas, was doing the kind of prefab that involved plunking a nearly completed house down onto a site.

I'd met Krager in 2003 on the road trip for The Perfect $100,000 House. At the time, his design–build firm, KRDB , was buying cheap pieces of land in dicey Austin neighborhoods and constructing beautifully configured, wonderfully simple modern houses, often sold at a subsidized price—in the low hundreds of thousands—through a city housing program. He went on to build SOL, a 38-unit green subdivision on the outskirts of Austin, and establish a company called MA Modular. Over the past decade, MA has built nine modular homes, mostly in Texas (and currently has another nine in the works). By working with existing manufacturers, the companies that turn out the typical double-wides you see rolling down the highway, Krager reports that he is able to deliver his modulars for about $165 a square foot.

I'd perused the websites of all the modern prefab companies that have sprung up since 2001 and couldn't find anything I liked better than Krager's MA line. Ed and I were partial to the 1,750-square-foot Z Plan, a long layout within a pair of abutting rectangles, two bedrooms at one end and one bedroom at the other. The design wasn't as glassy as we wanted, but Krager said we could customize.

Back in 2012, while I was in Austin working on an article about SOL, Krager had mentioned that MA had a client on Fire Island. The house would be manufactured in a New York area factory. However, Hurricane Sandy wiped out the site where MA's Fire Island house was supposed to sit. Instead, Krager had the modules manufactured out west, and displayed the house at the 2014 International Builder's Show in Las Vegas. (And there managed to sell the Fire Island prototype to a Los Angeles developer.)

I got an assignment to write about the show, so I got to see the Fire Island house in situ, a beach house sitting in the middle of a convention center parking lot in the desert. It seemed so wrong. Somehow, it made me start pondering the notion of site-specific architecture. It began to seem almost obscene, given the beauty of our site in Andes, to just plop a couple of modules down without taking the landscape into account. The idea of buying a house that's listed on someone's website as a "product" was suddenly very unappealing.

The truth is that I got scared. When a house is built piece by piece over time, there is, in theory, an opportunity to correct problems as they come up, but a pre-fab house is a fait accompli. What if the big trucks arrived and the crane deposited a house—like a package from Amazon—and we hated it?

Of course, if we'd gone modular, we'd likely have that house by now. Instead, we're still waiting for a building permit. But we have a conceptual design perfectly calibrated to the site: The angles will maximize views of the Andes landscape, and the form of the house will be largely dictated by the position of the most prominent tree on the property.

Up next in Homeward Bound: Working with an architect to design a stick-built house from the ground up.

· All Homeward Bound entries [Curbed]
· AndersonAnderson [Official site]
· MA Modular [Official site]
· KRDB [Official site]
· Off the Grid in the City [New York Times]
· Long Valley Ranch by Marmol Radziner Prefab [Design Milk]