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Fabulous Prefab

In keeping with our efforts to tie the weekly design column into current cultural happenings, this week's topic is prefab housing, which is being celebrated in Los Angeles through today at the Prefab Now event, hosted by Dwell Magazine and UCLA's Hammer Museum. At the center of the event is the Hammer's Jean Prouvé exhibition, which showcases three prefab structures created in the mid-twentieth century by the iconic French designer. His Tropical House has been constructed in the courtyard of the museum, having traveled from Brazzaville through France to the U.S.

Prefab housing is not new - in fact, simply having components that are manufactured in off-site industrial facilities constitutes the basic definition of prefab, and has been a part of home construction for decades. However, in recent years, a new movement has sprung up which ties prefab almost inextricably to modernist aesthetics, and also increasingly purports to have an inherent upper hand where sustainability is concerned. This movement is largely led by creators and followers of media like Dwell, and the popular website,

The fashion factor of the prefab movement has given rise to some celebrity-status designers, most of whom have been true pioneers in redefining prefab for a market that values simplicity and style equally. Design firms such as the Lazor Office and Resolution:4 Architecture, who both commissioned homes for Dwell, have turned a whole generation of homebuyers on to the possibility of drawing refined, beautiful design out of prefab. In many ways, simply the fact that compact, efficient housing is replacing oversized, energy-intensive homes as a symbol of material comfort is making a huge impact on consumption among homeowners.

But prefab has clear benefits outside of the upper-tier homeowner market. The elements of mass-customization, ease of mobility, and versatility of building materials make prefab homes ideal for low-income communities and areas that have been struck by disasters, such as the Gulf Coast and Pakistan. The UVA School of Architecture's ecoMOD project and much of the work of Architecture for Humanity are great testaments to the broader possibilities for prefab as a tool for assisting disadvantaged populations.

On top of all of the social implications, prefab architecture is growing greener with every new project, in recognition of the immense added value of eco-friendly features and the rapidly increasing demand for environmentally-conscious design. Many of the existing companies offer their homes with "optional" green elements, such as photovoltaics, tankless water heating, bamboo flooring and energy-efficient appliances. All of them emphasize the fact that off-site fabrication reduces waste and energy expenditures during construction, and that the footprint of a prefab home makes a much less significant impact on the building site than the foundation of a traditional house. There's no doubt that the spectrum of how green the many existing prefab designs really are is broad, and sometimes challenging to decipher. But it's clear that addressing sustainability has become a must for prefab designers and architects, which can only encourage greater efforts as time goes on.

From the countless amazing projects that currently exist in the prefab market, we've chosen a selection of our favorites, hoping to showcase the diversity of what's available. There is an overwhelming and ever-growing amount of information out there on the prefab movement, which seems to have hit a comfortable stride in the limelight of the design world. From our perspective, the movement deserves its cult status, having proven that a paradigm shift is possible in residential architecture, and that prefab is a flexible medium that can evolve with the changing demands of people and the environment.


As a kid, one of the greatest parts about building a LEGO house was that you could transform it over and over. As the characters in your make-believe world changed, the size and shape of your home could endlessly accommodate them. When you grew up, this kind of spontaneous renovation seemed limited to your imagination. But a new company in Norway is proving that even grown-ups can have a limitlessly flexible home.

Lovetann makes homes that stretch the conventions of modular design. The framework of each module is identical, framed in Hydro aluminum. The frame is then fitted with wall panels that can be customized according to the homeowner, with built-in features such as wireless networking, fireplaces, and floor-to-ceiling windows. Each home comes fully equipped with home entertainment systems and electrical appliances by Siemens.

Lovetann incorporates environmentally-friendly design by building on a low-impact foundation and offering solar panels and green roof options. They also include services like organic food deliveries and garden consultations, and are slated to grow their service offerings next year.

The first line of Lovetann homes has been designed in partnership with the internationally renowned Norwegian architecture firm, Snohetta, who designed the Cultural Center for the new World Trade Center with Frank Gehry. In the future, the standardized modular structure and choice of interiors will be available in customized variations by a number of architects and designers from around the world.

Lovetann's design has a Bucky Fuller-style futurism, that takes advantage of advanced technology as a means of facilitating simplicity and sustainability. The home is so functional as to nearly behave like an appliance, responding and adapting to the evolving needs of its inhabitants. If you thought you'd hit your peak in the LEGO era, rouse your imagination and check out Lovetann.


You can't talk about modernist prefab without reference to Jennifer Siegal's Office of Mobile Design. OMD was one of the original purveyors of stylish prefab architecture, and with ten years of experience, the company knows its way around of prefab design and construction.

Best known for the Swellhouse, the Portable Home, and most recently, the Take Home, OMD's prefab designs combine earth-friendly technologies with cost-efficient prefabrication methods. By designing non-permanently sited structures that rest lightly upon the land, OMD is rethinking and re-establishing methods of building that contrast the generic clutter that increasingly crowds the landscape. Heavily influenced by the possibilities of mass-customization, each of OMD's prefab houses can be tailored to a buyer's specifications, making it easier than ever for homebuyers to acquire a house that's both distinctive and affordable.

OMD's philosophy is inspired by Sant'Elia's Futurist manifesto, sharing the thought that "we no longer believe in the monumental, the heavy and static, and have enriched our sensibilities with a taste for lightness, transience and practicality."

$190-$230 a square foot - Take Home $160 sqf


If you hadn't noticed, trailers have been making a comeback in the past few years. High-end designers have been reappropriating the typically "trashy" trailer and making it chic. But no amount of cosmetic enhancement can truly disassociate a product from its name. Which is why the UK has the upper hand in this arena. In England, a trailer is called a "caravan". In fact, the British have an undeniable linguistic grace. For example, "holiday" sounds so much more romantic than vacation. The very word can change the whole experience.

This is only the beginning of a long list of reasons why the Retreat Holiday Caravan from Buckley Gray Yeoman Architects in London is the most elegant and stylish "mobile home" you can find. It comes in a range of sizes, from studio to 3-bedrooms with an en suite bath. The design is clean and contemporary, with floor-to-ceiling windows and Bosch kitchen appliances. And we were particularly thrilled about the optional Habitat furnishings, and all-timber hot tub.

As if all of this weren't enough, the Retreat House is constructed with primarily sustainable and renewable materials. For all models, timber is sourced from suppliers associated with the Forest Stewardship Council; the large windows reduce the need for electric lighting, and there is minimal use of plastic and other manmade material. For the environmental purist, the special Sustainable Model is available, with standard features that include dual flush toilets, moss sedum (green) roofs, photovoltaic panels and solar water heating.

This is a truly modern dwelling: compact, environmentally friendly and mobile. It can be set it up in a public caravan area (no doubt you'd be the talk of the trailer park) or in a residential backyard. No matter where it sits, the Retreat exudes an elegant charm. Just remember, if anyone asks, be sure to answer languidly: "I'm on holiday."


For those of you who believe that the reputation of college students as impassioned revolutionaries has been replaced by one of apathetic conformists, you may find restored hope at the University of Virginia School of Architecture.

ecoMOD is a research and design/build project begun during the 04-05 school year and slated to continue in phases over the next four years. In partnership with the Piedmont Housing Alliance in Charlottesville, VA, students at the UVA School of Architecture intend to design and erect at least three 1,000-1,2000-sq.-ft. homes in low-income communities in the Piedmont area.

These are not your standard affordable houses. The ecoMOD homes are modular and eco-friendly, with emphasis placed on marrying indoor and outdoor space through passive design strategies. The first prototype is aptly named the OUTin house, and will be erected in the Fifeville neighborhood following completion at a build site in a former airplane hangar.

During the 05-06 school year, the OUTin home will be closely monitored, with data collected and compared to other houses in parallel categories. In the subsequent two years, the remaining two prototypes will be built, and presumably many more in the future, to be sold by the Piedmont Housing Alliance to qualified buyers.

ecoMOD's mission statement says that they are dedicated to "making ecology legible for the inhabitant." That's one of the most sensible missions I've ever heard from a group of sustainable building advocates. What good is it to implement sustainable practices if the homeowner doesn't understand the how and why of their eco-friendly home?

This is an admirable project that brings together community advocacy, social responsibility, and sustainable design. If the UVA architecture students and professors are any reflection of the next generation, we've got a good thing coming.


Next up on the list of fabulous, environmentally-conscious prefab: Living Homes. With an immanent launch in Santa Monica, Living Homes is preparing to debut a structure that incorporates the key elements of eco-friendly home construction with an aesthetic that gracefully updates classic Southern California modern style.

With legendary architect Ray Kappe as their first designer, this aesthetic is coming straight from its progenitor. Founder of Sci-Arc and recipient of numerous awards, Kappe's residential work "has been characterized as 'the apotheosis of the California wood house.' Clear systems, harmony with nature, and environmental considerations are hallmarks of his approach."

From the scant details that have been provided to create proper suspense (it's working), we learn that the use of substantial natural light, FSC-certified wood, solar energy and green roofs will enhance the value of the home both financially and in terms of human and environmental health. Features like smart technology allow residents to adjust comfort and security levels remotely, and built-in modular interiors accomodate rearrangements for guests and growing families.

The first Living Homes community is being developed near Joshua Tree National Park, where the stark beauty of the landscape is a perfect backdrop for the spare elegance of the homes. In true Southern California style, the concept is holistic: the health of residents and the health of the land are vitally linked, so to preserve and maintain their vitality, we need homes that provide mutual benefit to both. Ergo, Living Homes.



The Modern-Shed has got to be the most affordable prefab dwelling around. Designed to function as backyard storage space, an office, small art studio, or even a guest bedroom, it can be easily assembled in a weekend. There are three basic models, which range in price from $5700 - $7800. What a steal!


The Breezehouse, is the newest "clean and green" prefabricated home from Michelle Kaufmann Designs. The home is a collaboration between Sunset Magazine and the Bay Area architect who made headlines last year with her Glidehouse (also a collaboration with Sunset magazine).

The 1,750-square-foot home is a modular, environmentally sustainable two-bedroom, two-bath dwelling. The signature feature is the Breezeroom at the center of the house. This glass-enclosed space sits under a butterfly-shaped roof that allows air to pass and circulate through the entire house. There are also indoor gardens, and movable glass walls that open the Breezehouse for easy indoor-outdoor living.

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Thank you for this article! The spousal unit and I are pretty sure we want to build our next home, and are leaning more and more towards prefab. This will give us plenty to think about.

Posted by: sennoma on 31 Oct 05

fabprefab link is not complete...

Posted by: eam on 2 Nov 05

i have read about a euro-design that provides a team to assemble this prefabricated home that is a very close-tolerence set of componets. can some info on the mfg. approaches be referenced?

Posted by: yew on 6 Nov 05

Prefab housing looks great but I would rather stay in an apartment. My apartment in houston is a great home.

Posted by: Apartment Locator Houston on 8 Nov 05

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