The future of architecture rolled into Menlo Park last month on the backs of two trucks.
Until people who attended a recent open house sponsored by Sunset Magazine got a good look at Michelle Kaufmann's sleek, modernist modular home, there were misconceptions to dispel.
"People were saying, 'Oh, they're bringing a trailer to Sunset,"' said Joe Mitter, a senior project manager for Construction Resource Group, the company that built the two-bedroom house in two modular units in its British Columbia factory.
What Kaufmann, a Marin County, Calif., architect who worked with Frank Gehry, has is a far cry from mobile homes and the imitation Tudors and Cape Cods and other imitative designs offered on the prefabricated-housing market.
In many ways, Glidehouse is the next step in a logical evolution of forward-thinking California architecture. With an expanse of glass lining one wall, Glidehouse brings the outdoors in, as did Cliff May's mid-20th-century ranchers. But with its low profile, glass and open interior spaces, it echoes Eichler design and Joseph Eichler's attempts to bring architect-designed, modernist homes to the masses.
Glidehouse is an environmentally conscious effort to make good design affordable, and the concept of affordable housing is a bit foreign for most Californians.
The idea of the prefab home is not new, but there is growing interest in such modern prefabs. But what Kaufmann has accomplished is extraordinary, said Michael Sylvester, editor of the Web site Fabprefab.
"This is the first real example of a new breed of house, which really marries an architect design solution with all the benefits of factory production," Sylvester said. "It sets a completely new benchmark for quality and detailing.
"This is not faux," Sylvester said, describing the glass panels and wood-stripped sunshade panels that glide back and forth, allowing the resident to control light and privacy. "You see modular homes that are French Provincial. This is the next generation of modernism. It's subtle, it's accessible and it's affordable. I think it's fantastic."
Most important, Kaufmann's grandmother in Iowa likes it.
"My grandma is always my litmus test," said Kaufmann, 35. "She has seen this design and has said, 'I would live in something like this.' Even though it's a modern home and has some materials that aren't traditional, it's somewhat stealth-like. It's almost an anonymous interior; it's more about its connection to the exterior."
Glidehouse was born out of the frustrating search for affordable housing that Kaufmann and her husband, a general contractor, conducted in Marin County. "It was devastating, so painful," she said. So Kaufmann returned to the drawing board and designed a simple, environmentally friendly house with clean, modern lines. Friends clamored for something similar, and light bulbs went on. The inspiration evolved into Glidehouse. While on-site construction of Kaufmann's own house continued, production of prefab Glidehouses is ready to begin.
More than half a dozen customers are ready to sign contracts. Glidehouse comes in multiple sizes, from a 672-square-foot, one-bedroom model to a 2,016-square-foot, four-bedroom house configured around a courtyard. Kaufmann is developing two- and three-story versions more suited to urban environments. Customers can expect to pay about $120 a square foot.
Clients provide the land, utilities, a foundation and kitchen appliances. Glidehouse arrives nearly complete. For example, the wood sunshades are added on-site; the width they add to the 14-foot-wide modular unit matters when you're trucking a house down the road.
There is little that feels prefabricated or corner-cutting about Glidehouse. In the first module, the expanse of glass fronts an extended living space that encompasses living room, dining area and kitchen. Along the opposite wall, sliding birch doors front a storage bar, allowing for a bit of instant tidiness. (The gliding panels give the house its name.) In both modules -- the back, slightly offset, houses two bathrooms and two bedrooms -- the glass panels are offset by operable clerestory windows on the opposite walls. This allows for cross ventilation.
The floors are covered in durable bamboo, a renewable resource. The bathrooms feature dark slate, as Kaufmann worked to further a sense of connection with nature.
The house has a linear, somewhat narrow feel; the basic 14-by-48-foot module must fit on a truck. There is a bit of a sense that the two modules are different living spaces, but it works well, with the first module feeling open and accessible and the second creating more privacy.
The house also has a proprietary insulation system and a heating and cooling recovery system that Kaufmann said recycles 30 percent of the energy expended. The house will come with a variety of materials from which clients can choose.
Kaufmann likes that the house is easy on the land. For one thing, there's not all the waste of construction materials that occurs at on-site construction, she said.
Cheryl Haines, executive director of the nonprofit San Francisco-based For-Site Foundation, hopes to have a Glidehouse on a 50-acre site in Nevada City by mid-September. Haines and her husband wanted to build a studio-home for visiting artists but found the cost prohibitive. Instead, they'll pay $120 a square foot for a 952-square-foot Glidehouse that will have views of five mountain ranges.
"I think it's lovely. It's very clean, very simple," Haines said. She said the house is a sort of blank page for its occupants, allowing them to express themselves. Of Kaufmann, Haines said: "She's positioned herself at the right place at the right time."