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Michelle Kaufmann Scales Down to Scale Up Pre-Fab

Kaufmann and contemporaries are searching for ways to control (and limit their exposure to) non-traditional phases of the design and construction process in pre-fab

By Zach Mortice

Associate Editor


Pre-fabricated construction has staked its fortune on architects’ willingness to seize control over non-traditional parts of the building cycle designers don’t usually touch, but as Michelle Kaufmann can attest, survival in today’s pre-fab landscape requires a nimbleness that knows when to let go and what to hold onto. This includes designing, fabricating, building—all the ambitions of architects fascinated by pre-fab’s potential to unify the scattered nature of how buildings are made. “We don’t need to do it all,” she says.

This is a mantra Kaufmann hopes to prove with her newest business venture, Michelle Kaufmann Studio, which introduced three new lines of pre-fab homes last month, a bit more than a year after her previous residential pre-fab endeavor (mkDesigns) went out of business. Her resolve to keep pre-fab at the forefront of her practice is an appropriate testament to the history of the medium itself, which Kaufmann calls the “oldest new idea” in architecture. Pre-fabrication is a thought that’s been elementally grounded in Modernism’s faith in machine logic and the freedom and function it could offer mankind; whole rooms and sections of homes and offices, rolling off factory lines with the efficiency of automobiles or home appliances. With a recent show at the MoMA (Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling), pre-fab has been at the forefront of as many cutting-edge design conversations as ever, but it’s still thought of as the most popular idea in architecture to never actually catch on. Though they’re meant to be churned out of factories by the hundreds, pre-fab houses remain far more notable for the uniqueness than their ubiquity.

How and why to not do it all

Not long ago, Kaufmann was one of the most well-known, successful designers of pre-fabricated housing, with a practice in Northern California that had expanded to own its own factory to fabricate their designs. In 2008 the residential real estate market crashed. Orders continued to pile in, but two of the third-party factories Kaufmann worked with went bankrupt, affixing a concrete block to her balance sheets. Things deteriorated, and in May of 2009 she closed her office.

Very quickly, Kaufmann realized that to survive in Great Recession America, she’d have to give up having large, sunk, infrastructural costs like owning her own factory. Her new business would only work with third party fabricators to spread risk and remain flexible. mkDesigns grew from one to 60 people in two years, but Michelle Kaufmann Studio would remain small. “Now we’re at four people,” she says, “and I have no intention of getting larger.”

All of these transitions have been hard, and Kaufmann calls the end of her previous business “heartbreaking.” But she’s comforted by one core belief: Her business didn’t fail because pre-fab is a bad idea. “I still believe pre-fab is the future,” she says. “I’m not giving up.”

Is the recession good for pre-fab, or is pre-fab good for the recession?

Marmol Radziner is another California pre-fab leader that similarly had to shutter their own factory and transition to third-party collaborators after the 2008 housing market crash. However, the firm’s dedicated pre-fab design business has been able to maintain one other element of building outside of the traditional design process. In California, Marmol Radziner act as general contractors, building the houses they’ve designed.

Marmol Radziner has developed three lines of pre-fabricated houses, one of which is the Locomo series, aimed at budget-conscious design enthusiasts and priced at a modest $250,000. Like all Marmol Radziner’s pre-fab work, it shows off a lean and traditional California Modernism, at home on isolated cliff sides and sprawling quasi-suburban lots. The Locomo was proposed specifically with the suffering housing economy and risk-averse lending markets in mind, but so far Todd Jerry, chief operating officer of Marmol Radziner Prefab, hasn’t seen this model or any other take off. The lack of construction loans have led to lower volumes of pre-fab houses being built, which, without the assembly line economies of scale, push up prices.

“In our experience, pre-fab tends to cost about the same as comparable quality site construction, and that’s not going to change until such time that you’re building in a market of volume,” he says.

Kaufmann sees a brighter side to the depressed housing market. “There’s definitely good parts to the crisis,” she says enthusiastically. Widespread interest in sustainability has made people notice the inherent efficiencies of pre-fab. This is a selling point that Kaufmann plans to maximize with all three new housing models (The Ridge0, The Contours0, and The Vista0). As soon as the modular sections of these houses snap together, they’ll be net-zero energy buildings.

Housing that is net-zero and pre-fabricated is completely untested territory, and the two notions aren’t shy about contradicting each other. The primary challenge of creating any kind of net-zero building is attuning it so tightly to its natural environment that off-site power sources aren’t needed. Any net-zero building must act as a fine-tuned machine that reflects its geographic and climatic location to the most detailed degree. Now imagine trying to design this capability into houses that arrive on site in sections that are 90 percent complete with everything from windows to kitchen towel holders already in place. Walking this tightrope between environmental responsiveness and pre-fab standardization will be Kaufmann’s biggest challenge.

Another omnipresent challenge Kaufmann and all other architects interested in pre-fab will have to face is the lingering stigma of “trailer trash,” as she calls it; the widely held belief that pre-fab housing consists mostly of poorly designed, substandard doublewides. There’s at least one architect who’s been able to grab headlines by demonstrating how factory fabrication can create premium housing. Daniel Libeskind, AIA, has lent his name to a series of factory-made houses called The Villa. A prototype of the 5,500-square-foot house was completed last year, full of asymmetrical massing, iridescent zinc paneling, and the sharp angles of a German Expressionist film. Unlike Libeskind’s collection of museums and cultural institutions, the Villa is meant to roll off of a German factory’s production line, a kit of parts ready to assemble, one after another, until there are 30. No more.

Yama Karim, a principal at Studio Daniel Libeskind, explains that the Villa is more comparable to a “limited edition product” like a car or a watch than a traditional pre-fab house. By limiting the production of the house, Karim is looking for a happy medium between mass-produced housing that is repeated into banality, and brazen, singular forms (rather unique to Libeskind) that only established institutions could ever afford and should never be repeated. “This limited edition house fills the gap in the market between mass-produced housing and the one-of-kind custom homes,” Karim says.

Developing pre-fab

Both Kaufmann and Jerry acknowledge that real estate development is perhaps the most promising and unexplored territory for architects looking to expand into pre-fab. Developers can gather up demand and present it to fabricators at scales that can keep factories humming for months. Taking control of this part of the design and construction process likely offers as many benefits to architects as assuming responsibility for back-end phases like fabrication and general contracting. Already, Kaufmann is working on a 25-acre masterplanned development in Denver. A few weeks into the life of a new practice, Kaufmann isn’t making any promises, but she knows an opportunity when she sees one. Will developing pre-fab communities become the newest acquisition in architects’ decades-long attempt to unify design and construction with pre-fab? “It’s definitely something in the future we’ll be looking at,” she says.


The Vista0, designed by Michelle Kaufmann. Rendering by Michelle Kaufmann and Studio 101 Designs.

The Contours0, designed by Michelle Kaufmann. Rendering by Michelle Kaufmann and Studio 101 Designs.

The Ridge0, designed by Michelle Kaufmann. Rendering by Michelle Kaufmann and Studio 101 Designs.

The Hidden Valley House, designed by Marmol Radziner. Image courtesy of Joe Fletcher.

The Villa, designed by Daniel Libeskind, AIA. Image courtesy of Studio Daniel Libeskind © Frank Marburger.

The interior of Libeskind’s factory fabricated house. Image courtesy of Studio Daniel Libeskind © Frank Marburger.


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