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Prefab Homes Get Fabulous

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Is the phrase "affordable, stylish house" an oxymoron? It may seem so, given a still-heated real estate market. The median price of an existing American home in September was $212,000 -- up 13.4% from the same period last year, according to the latest figures released by the National Association of Realtors.

But a new generation of sleek, prefabricated modernist housing suggests a cost-efficient -- and elegant -- alternative. And Dwell, the San Francisco trendy shelter magazine, is leading the way. This fall the magazine launched a new line of prefab houses, Dwell Homes, that carries the publication's brand and targets its readership.

AN AIRY WINNER. "Cost is a big factor in why prefab is timely," says Allison Arieff, Dwell's editor-in-chief and author of the book Prefab. "In my own experience hunting for a house in the San Francisco Bay area, I've been shown shacks for $650 per square foot." In contrast, Dwell Homes average $175 to $250 per square foot for a two-level, 2,500-square-foot building.

"While they don't really fulfill the promise of a Wal-Mart-priced house, they are far less expensive than an original design by, say, Richard Meier," says Arieff.

The seed for Dwell Homes was planted two years ago, when the magazine invited an international selection of innovative architects to design streamlined homes that could be constructed from low-cost prefabricated materials. In 2004, Dwell built the winning design, an airy house with bold lines, designed by New York firm Resolution: 4 Architecture, headed by partners Joseph Tanney and Robert Luntz.

"When 2,500 visitors showed up to the viewing -- far more than we had expected -- we realized there is a viable interest on a larger scale," says Arieff, who adds that she has received 5,000 to 10,000 e-mails asking her advice on how to purchase a prefab modernist home.

STEEL AND BAMBOO.Buyers of Dwell Homes have three floor plans to choose from, created by the respected firms Resolution: 4 Architecture, Lazor Office, and Empyrean International (formerly Deck House). The latter is also the manufacturer and licensing partner of all the designs. Each option echoes the clean geometry of classic buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller, two of modernist architecture's founding forefathers -- and both early proponents of prefab housing.

Resolution: 4 Architecture's offering is a version of the design that won Dwell's 2003 competition. The L-shaped floor plan includes a large, first-floor living/dining space encased in glass and an upper-level roof deck with an exterior fireplace.

Lazor Office's design grew out of architect Charlie Lazor's own quest to find an inexpensive modern home for his family. A variety of materials, ranging from steel to bamboo to sandblasted glass, lend a sense of textural complexity to an otherwise simple, rectangular structure. The house's name and modular style, FlatPak, have much in common with the assemble-it-yourself furniture designed by hip home-furnishings label Blu Dot, a company that Lazor co-founded.

BRING YOUR OWN LAND. Empyrean's home, dubbed NextHouse and designed by architect Joel Turkel, centers on a core-like space with a stretch of wall and window that extends through both levels of the house, so someone on the first floor can see up to the second. Despite the openness of the plan, private spaces are tucked into the opposite sides of the central living room. The master bedroom includes a roof deck.

Buyers must already own land for the installation of a home, and should note that the cost of property isn't included in the price. Nor are local labor costs, which can vary wildly from market to market.

Empyrean, which has a 57-year history of manufacturing homes, assigns a project manager to serve as liaison between the buyer and the architect, as well as the local construction team.

BRISK SALES. Clearly, even the most chic modernist prefab homes are basically cookie-cutter designs. But Dwell's Arieff likens the experience of purchasing one to buying a hip car, such as a Mini Cooper, which is mass-produced but customizable to a degree.

The smallest Dwell Home in production measures in at 1,000 square feet, the largest at 4,000. Buyers can choose to add or subtract a porch, deck, or garage, among other details.

While figures from the Manufactured Housing Institute show that sales of manufactured homes in general (defined as factory-produced single-family houses) are down -- representing 9.8% of new single-family housing starts in the U.S. in 2004, compared to 14.8% in 2002 -- the market for modernist prefab seems to be experiencing brisk sales.

Michael Harris, president of Empyrean, says the company projected sales of 60 units in the first year. Fifteen have been sold in the first month.

SURPRISING DEMAND.Dwell isn't alone. Rocio Romero, an architect based in Perryville, Mo., who has been designing modern prefab houses since 2002, sells her cube-shaped, loft-like homes in two sizes, priced at $32,900 and $40,050.

Without any direct association to a larger brand -- and even before the New Yorker magazine profiled her in early October -- Romero sold 10 prefab homes in 2004, the first year they were available. This year, to date, she has sold 15 and expects 2005 sales to be double last year's.

Geoffrey Warner of Alchemy Architects, the St. Paul (Minn.) designer, didn't plan on selling prefab homes. But his Wee House prototype, intended as a $50,000 cabin for a single client, met with surprising demand.

IKEA STEPS IN.Warner thought he could supply requests in the most cost- and time-effective way by coming up with a prefabricated model. "We've been seriously offering the prefab version for about a year, and have about 10 houses in the production process," Warner says.

And in Europe, the fascination with prefab has also been brewing. The first BoKlok prefab home, produced through a partnership between modular-furniture maker Ikea and Skanska, was built in Sweden in 1997. More than 2,000 units have sold to date. In July, Ikea announced the launch of BoKlok developments in Britain.

Empyrean's Turkel believes that Ikea -- whose worldwide sales totaled $15.5 billion in 2004 -- helped build the market for prefab homes. After all, homes made from a kit have the same quasi-do-it-yourself, modular quality and streamlined design as an Ikea bookshelf or chair, albeit on a larger scale. Ikea also proved that inexpensive products don't have to look cheap.

WORTHY TRADE-OFFS. The trend toward modernist prefab defies popular preconceptions that manufactured housing is of poor quality and lacks style. But as Dwell's Arieff points out, factory-controlled, mass-produced components can allow for "a lower margin of error compared to wooden beams hammered by hand."

In addition, design-conscious details (like the steel, sandblasted glass, and bamboo in Lazor Office's FlatPak design) can be included within a relatively modest budget if the overall costs of a house's structural elements, such as pre-engineered, mass-produced framing, are kept down.

"Prefab was long associated with bad design," says Jill Herbers, author of Prefab Modern. "It got into the hands of the government and other institutions as a way to put up shelter quickly and cheaply, and as a result, design was downgraded. Now we're seeing the polar opposite."


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