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The Prefab Future, Practically Here

The Dream of Factory-Built Modernism Takes Shape at Last

By Jeff Turrentine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 31, 2005; Page H01

Take a good look at the house in these pictures. Eye candy, right? Modern lines, wide- open floor plan, sky-high windows -- almost always the hallmarks of a contemporary, architect-designed residence that's nice to look at and undoubtedly pleasant to live in but manifestly out of reach for most people.

Now read these next words very slowly, and let them sink in.

interior of Luminhaus (prefab house) near Richmond
interior of Luminhaus (prefab house) near Richmond
The living area of Luminhaus, a just-erected prefab dwelling near Amherst, Va. (Jennifer Watson)

The house in these pictures cost the homeowners $95,000.

Okay, okay: That's not including the price of the land, 6.2 acres on a heavily wooded hill near Amherst, Va., just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. And labor costs were, in this case, minimal -- because the homeowners built much of the dwelling themselves, with the aid of family and friends.

But Barry Bless and Jennifer Watson figure that even if contractors had done most of the work, their 1,150-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath mountain retreat would have come in at around $150,000. That works out to $130 a square foot, compared with the $200-to-$400-per-square-foot costs of many modern, architect-designed houses.

Bless, a 50-year-old musician and househusband, and Watson, a 38-year-old photographer, are pioneers. The Richmond pair are the first customers to have purchased and erected the LV Home, a sleek-lined prefabricated dwelling by architect Rocio Romero that sells as a kit for roughly $30,000 and travels on the back of a truck.

Such is the promise of modern prefab, an architectural trend championed in cutting-edge design magazines such as Dwell and breathlessly promoted on the Web sites, www.fabprefab.com and others. The concept is more than a style, more than a method, and something like a movement -- one that after years of hope and expectation is gaining real momentum.

The fundamental idea is a simple one, and has been around since double-wide trailers started rolling off assembly lines after World War II. By producing parts of a structure in a factory setting, efficiency is maximized and costs are significantly contained. Wall panels, roofs, exterior framing and other elements can then be shipped to a building site and built on a foundation. Just add windows, electricity, plumbing and other systems, and voilà: You've got yourself a house, for a whole lot cheaper than a stick-built home.

Bless and Watson first laid eyes on their new house in "Prefab," a coffee-table book published in 2002 and co-written by Allison Arieff, Dwell's editor in chief, and Bryan Burkhart. Bless had given the book, regarded by many as having sparked the modern prefab movement, to his wife as a Christmas present. When Watson saw images of the LV Home prototype and learned that Romero planned to mass-produce it, she was determined that she, Bless and their four daughters would eventually live inside one.

The pair were particularly suited to take on a project of this scope, as both of them happen to be experienced carpenters. Most others, however, would need to call in a general contractor to lay the foundation, put up the wall panels, install windows, put in electrical/HVAC/plumbing systems and otherwise fabricate a house in which only the exterior envelope can truly be said to be "prefabricated."

"Everyone has that dream of it all just snapping together like Legos," says Romero from her home base of Perryville, Mo., near St. Louis. "But the more permanent a building is going to be, the more complex it is. I tell all my clients to get a general contractor."

For decades the word "prefab," and indeed the very notion of a factory-built house, carried a host of unflattering connotations: inferior, unimaginative, temporary. But proponents of modern prefab see the factory as a crucial component of a system that allows people of relatively modest means to live in the kind of architecturally distinct houses that typically have been available to only a few. Individuality, they argue, can be achieved through the modification and combination of prefabricated elements, or modules. (The term "modular" is used more or less interchangeably with the term "prefab.")

The chief roadblock to modern prefab construction has been reluctance among housing manufacturers, averse to taking a risk on an unproven phenomenon. Though believers in modern prefab are passionate, their numbers are still tiny. Until manufacturers are convinced that there exists a tenable market, they will be wary of jumping on board.

"The technology exists, and the motivation on the part of consumers and designers exists," says Arieff, speaking by phone from Dwell's offices in San Francisco. "Financing is becoming easier. Many obstacles have been taken out of the way. But until a large-scale builder or developer commits to this in at least a few regions, it's not going to become what people are dreaming of. We have to move beyond where we are now, which is a bunch of very committed individuals or small firms who are trying to do this. Alliances need to be formed on a bigger level."

Nathan Wieler would surely agree. He and his wife have just moved in to what is arguably the most high-profile modern prefab house in America: the 2,260-square-foot Dwell Home in Pittsboro, N.C., so named because that magazine sponsored its construction in a contest in 2003.

The deadline for the Dwell Home's completion was July 10, 2004, when the public was invited to come out and take a look. The open house that day was expected to draw 500 people. Five times that many showed up, some from as far away as Michigan, California and Oregon.

Budgeted at $87 per square foot, the Dwell Home's seven basic modules were factory-built, shipped to the site and erected in a matter of weeks. The house shone like prefab's holy grail -- evidence that the vectors of efficiency, economy and modernist aesthetics had finally converged.

Which they had, mostly. As recently as two weeks ago, though, Wieler and his wife were still awaiting the certificate of occupancy that would allow them to move in to their celebrated home. The holdup, it should be noted, had nothing to do with the basic integrity of the prefabricated portions of the house. But a million little things -- mainly cosmetic issues that had arisen from the house's hasty assembly -- required a million little fixes. As a result, says Wieler, the final cost per square foot of his home rose appreciably, just as his move-in date stretched on into the future.

At this stage of its development, at least, prefab doesn't mean perfect.

"Anytime you try to be the first to do something, you experience all sorts of bumps in the road," says Wieler, who with his wife selected a design by Resolution:4 Architecture, one of more than a dozen entries in the Dwell Home competition. "We had all those experiences. We're trying to get to where you can actually market and sell these fabulous houses that are quick to build and affordable. But in terms of doing the first one, it's not necessarily so quick and affordable."

When Wieler, 32, uses the pronoun "we," he's not just speaking on behalf of prefab believers. The former Internet company CEO is parlaying his personal experience with the Dwell Home into a new startup. It's a real estate development firm that will try to achieve what Arieff says is most needed for the prefab revolution to catch fire: a full-service package entailing not only design and manufacture, but also land purchase and engineering.

The new company draws inspiration, says its founder, from mid-century California housing developer Joseph Eichler, whose patronage of great architects helped make him the rare real-estate tycoon beloved by the design community. Wieler's new project "leverages the advantages of prefabricated construction," according to its mission statement, in its goal of providing customers with the modern house of their dreams.

Arieff, meanwhile, is partnering with Minneapolis architect Charlie Lazor on a plan to mass-produce his remarkable -- and, at $140 per square foot, remarkably cost-effective -- FlatPak house, which her magazine notes in its current issue "just might be the project that revolutionizes the prefab industry."

And down in Missouri, Rocio Romero continues to manufacture her LV House (and its big sister, the two-level LVL House) for a growing client base. She has all but stopped accepting custom-built commissions, preferring instead to devote herself to the cause full time.

"There are still naysayers; there's still skepticism," she acknowledges. "Some people on the live-chat forums are still critical. But the people who have been through it want to spread the word, and show people that it really does work. And as people learn more, there are going to be more 'yea'-sayers than naysayers."

Pre-Fab Resources

Jennifer Watson and Barry Bless have christened their new modern prefab dwelling Luminhaus, and have opened it up as a vacation home available for rental. The house in Amherst, Va., is approximately a three-hour drive from Washington. For rates and availability, go to www.luminhaus.com or call 804-233-0526.

To learn more about the prefab designs of architect Rocio Romero, visit www.rocioromero.com.

The FlatPak, designed by architect Charlie Lazor, is featured in the April/May issue of Dwell magazine, and can be viewed at www.flatpakhouse.com.

Wieler, a new company that will be developing modern prefab homes near Chapel Hill, N.C., can be found at www.wieler.com or by calling 800-496-7987.

Other prefab resources can be found at www.fabprefab.com.

Jeff Turrentine

© 2005 The Washington Post Company