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FabCab Offers Universally Designed Pre-Fab

One Seattle architect sees universal design as the key to bringing pre-fab home

By John Gendall

With the swelling tide of an aging population, many architects and clients are rethinking the set of choices offered for comfortably living through the twilight years. Unfortunately, awareness and consideration is new for many designers. Most houses are not designed with this stage of life in mind, so once an existing space becomes difficult to navigate, residents are forced into a limited set of options, often dominated by institutional facilities.

Seattle architect Emory Baldwin, AIA, has long been preoccupied with this design challenge. Having previously worked at firms that specialize in senior living (including his own partnership, ZAI Architects), he developed a close familiarity with the market and its challenges. “Institutional senior living facilities often accelerate the end,” says Baldwin. “AARP has done surveys that show that 90 percent of people want to grow old in their own houses. There is a place for institutionalized care, of course, but it doesn’t have to be for everyone the way the industry is pushing it,” he adds. “This is not what I wanted to do, because it didn’t seem like a great solution for people.”

Baldwin found great potential in developing a smaller accessory dwelling unit (ADU) that could be offered to potential clients as a prefabricated kit-of-parts. There was a conundrum, though: existing ADU models were not designed for people with limited mobility. “Many people who are most likely wanting ADUs are going to be people in their later years who are coming to live with their adult children,” says Baldwin. “So if these structures aren’t accessible, they’re missing the most of the market.”

Accessible, invisible

With this in mind, Baldwin created FabCab, a line of prefabricated timber-frame ADUs meant to appeal to clients of any age, including the elderly. Baldwin went to the drawing boards in October 2009, and by February 2010 developed a prototype for display. Now, he has 12 projects--permits ready--active on the West Coast, with other possibilities springing up across the country.

“Small pre-fab structures are the way to go, since there aren’t too many people who have large lots for big homes, but there are millions of people who have backyards that could accommodate an ADU,” he says.

“Universal design was at the forefront of our thinking,” Baldwin says, referring to an approach to design that allows anyone of any age or with any physical, sensory, or cognitive restriction to comfortably use a space or designed object. “The FabCab units are 100 percent accessible, but these measures are entirely invisible,” he says. Baldwin included stepless entries, 3-foot wide doors, open, flexible spaces, loop or lever door handles, recessed cabinets that allow for knee-space under sinks, countertops of varying heights, and bathrooms with more room to maneuver than what might otherwise be included in a small ADU.

He is adamant, though, that this is not just a matter of designing for people with limited mobility. “If you don’t really appeal to everyone,” he cautions, “it’s not really universal design.” Design for only an older generation, therefore, is admirable, but ultimately short-sighted. “Our goal,” he says, “is that someone of any age could approach us, be attracted to the product and be interested in buying it. We want to appeal to the widest bandwidth of the population as possible. We proved this hypothesis at the Seattle Home Show last year,” he explains. “We had two guys who came in and called it a perfect bachelor pad. Then, five minutes later, a couple in their 70s came in and said it would be perfect for the wife’s mother.”

Building it right the first time

Because of their efficiency and relatively low cost (units can be as inexpensive as $49,000), Baldwin wanted to prefabricate the units. This came with its own set of challenges, though. “The prefab I’ve seen usually comes as modular construction,” he says. “The downside of modular construction is that you typically need an 18-inch crawlspace below a wood floor, so you end up being about 30 inches off the ground. If you’re building an ADU for an aging parent, it won’t be accessible without a ridiculous ramp filling the backyard.”

FabCab uses a prefabricated kit-of-parts, assembled on site. As Baldwin puts it, “With this system, you can build it slab-on-grade, so you can have a stepless entry.” By staying away from modular construction, he was able to open up the floor plan. “Prefab is often very compartmentalized, with walls everywhere, and this isn’t universally accessible,” he says. With open, flexible spaces, FabCab can be re-imagined by potential clients as fitting their lifestyles, whatever stage of life they may find themselves in.

For Baldwin, this is all a matter of good design. “If you can anticipate future scenarios, you can allow the residents to have a more stable housing situation in the future,” he says. “If you build a home right the first time, you can eliminate a lot of wasteful and expensive remodeling down the road.”


The FabCab prototype in eastern Washington State. Image courtesy of Emory Baldwin, AIA.


FabCab’s front façade is covered in floor-to-ceiling windows. Image courtesy of Dale Lang.


FabCab is built entirely on-grade, with a stepless entry. Image courtesy of Dale Lang.


Interior shot of the FabCab prototype. Image courtesy of Dale Lang.


Recent Related:

ARCHITECT Magazine: Absolutely Accessible

Author Michael Litchfield on Turning One House Into Two: In-Laws, Outlaws and Granny Flats

Universal Design Living Laboratory Seeks to Break Barriers

Michelle Kaufmann Scales Down to Scale Up Pre-Fab


Visit the FabCab Web site.

Visit the Residential Knowledge Community Web site in AIA KnowledgetNet.

Visit the Modular and Prefabricated Architecture Group Web site in AIA KnowledgeNet.

Do you know the Architect’s Knowledge Resource?

The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to “Performance and Manufactured Homes.”

See what else the Architect’s Knowledge Resource has to offer for your practice.


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