Tag Archives: affordable

#28: MYTH OF THE PREFAB HOUSE

February 4, 2016

Prefab home, Madrid, Spain (photo by Abaton)

I am convinced that prefab homes are a myth. The success stories have been shown to be mostly fictional and braggadocio. More relevant than ever, we need well-designed, good value housing. But relevance doesn’t mean reality. According to all those glossy marketing campaigns, prefab houses were supposed to not only change the housing market, but change the world.

Different than a custom designed residence built at the construction site, a “prefab” (short for prefabricated) house is designed speculatively, built in a factory, and assembled on the property owner’s lot like an enormous toy kit-o-parts.

“Modern Home No. 115,” Sears “Kit” home, circa 1930
“Modern Home No. 115,” Sears “Kit” home, circa 1930

Though apparently popular in past years, the prefab approach is not new. Early 1900’s, retailers like Sears sold prefab homes from a catalog. After World War II, the prefab solution offered an affordable option for returning soldiers.

First problem. Prefab homes are not meant to be customized. To reflect personalities, people love to change things. Even with the prefab companies offering some architectural variations, such as a larger bedroom or different kitchen layouts, such few choices rarely suit homebuyers. And their requested customizations muck up the whole process. With homes already fabricated and pre-approved by building codes, customer changes, even the smallest ones, come at great cost, loss of efficiency, and waste of energy.

Prefab home en route (photo by Joe Sohm)
Prefab home en route (photo by Joe Sohm)

Second problem. When considering the deceptively low price for a prefab home, make sure you pad the wallet for: purchase of your land; delivery costs of bringing said house to your property; and the infrastructure required, i.e. building foundation, sewer line, driveway, landscape and site lighting.

Third problem. How great are these homes architecturally? With the limits of a factory process and dimensions of the truck delivering across interstates, the design result is not much more than a box. And a box, even a nice bunch of boxes, might not make an enjoyable home for you.

Prefab beach house, Hekerua Bay, New Zealand, (Photo by Russell Kleyn)
Prefab beach house, Hekerua Bay, New Zealand, (photo by Russell Kleyn)

Years ago at the national trade shows, I witnessed an impressive number of sales booths promoting prefab companies. I queried the salesperson, “How many prefab houses have been sold?” With all the different salespeople from various booths, the answers were consistently ambiguous. “Well . . . we have designed several, some in production, few are pre-ordered . . .”

When asked again, this time with tenacity, their responses were embarrassing, as no marketing person likes to backpedal. They admit, “Only one, maybe two have been delivered to a home buyer.” Not the 50 or 100 as their pretty pictures represent.

Each passing year, I witnessed fewer booths. The fancy magazines wrote editorials retracting their previous features on the “silver bullet success of prefab homes.”

Prefab home in Desert Hot Springs, California. Originally listed for approximately $2 million. Four years later, sold for only one-third of asking price. (photo by CAD Services and Marmol Radziner)
Prefab home in Desert Hot Springs, California. Originally listed for approximately $2 million. Four years later, sold for only one-third of asking price. (photo by CAD Services and Marmol Radziner)

The once seductive $200,000 price tag for a house has been replaced by the actual total cost of $2 to $3 million. Perhaps the prefab home would sell better to the wealthy. Such structures can have exciting possibilities as second homes, weekend beach structures, or getaway vacation retreats.

42 portable classrooms, Palm Harbor University High, Florida, 2014 (photo by Andy Jones)
42 portable classrooms, Palm Harbor University High, Florida, 2014 (photo by Andy Jones)

Homes aside, prefab buildings have purpose as temporary structures. How about those prefab classrooms in your school’s parking lot? Ironically, though these “temporary” classrooms suggested a permanent solution was on its way, these structures remain in use, 30 years and counting.

The prefab industry is a tiny niche. As a hyped marketing position, it impressively blazed through mainstream media. But as the answer to good housing: sorry.

#6: MODERN FOR THE MASSES

April 10, 2015

Z-3 Residence, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design (photo by George Guttenberg)

It started with an idea that the essential qualities of luxury modern residences could be delivered to the mainstream marketplace at affordable prices.

Custom modern residences are evident throughout California, but what average American family can afford such homes ranging from a few million dollars to upward of $20 million? On the other hand, affordable tract housing proliferate our suburbs, but do these faux-Mediterranean-Spanish-inspired stucco boxes have architectural integrity, relevance and merit?

Panorama Residence, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design (photo by Lance Gerber)
Panorama Residence, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design (photo by Lance Gerber)

For Poon Design, infusing tract housing, also known as production housing, with modern luxury design was a new kind of challenge, a different kind of business, and an entirely distinctive kind of architecture. As client/developer Andrew Adler, CEO of Alta Verde Group, has put it: “We are democratizing good design.”

While somewhat new for architecture, democratizing good design has been demonstrated by a number of world famous designers, such Michael Graves designing a product for Target. Graves first designed his famous tea kettle 25 years ago for Alessi, an Italian kitchen utensil distributor that represented some of the most well-known architects and designers of the time, such as Ettore Sottsass, Philippe Starck and Zaha Hadid. Many of Alessi’s products are so celebrated that they are in the permanent museum collections, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The tea kettle Graves designed for Alessi was priced at several hundred dollars to the luxury buyer seeking.

Many years later, Graves designed a very similar tea kettle for Target—and it costs less than $40. The two kettles were near exact in concept and details. Graves’s design went from being offered to the sophisticated, wealthy and elite, to the average person, who although shopping on a budget, still seeks and appreciates good design.

B3-Living-Room-Med

top: B-3 Residence, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design (staging by Interior Illusions); bottom: I-3 Residence, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design (photos by Chris Miller)

Poon Design adopted this for architecture, at the first of four communities designed and constructed with Alta Verde in Palm Springs, at a development called Escena. With Mr. Adler as design partner, Poon Design developed four home prototypes for 130 lots on 21 acres. The 3-bedroom prototypes captured many ideas, both proven and exploratory: extended roof overhangs for passive cooling and protection from the heat; drought tolerant native landscape; regional building materials; reflective energy efficient cool roof; electric car chargers; LED lighting; and rooftop solar panels.

Horizon Residence, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design (photo by Lance Gerber)
Horizon Residence, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design (photo by Lance Gerber)

We promoted a new kind of architecture that we entitled, “This Century Modern,” which was a nod to the popular title, “Mid-Century Modern.” Currently 100 homes have been built and sold, and new phases of construction are ongoing, many homes pre-sold. Our architecture has been bestowed with a dozen national design awards.

Though just homes, the force and impact of great architecture can come at a community scale, acknowledging a framework for how a municipality might evolve. The blank canvas for ground breaking residential design is not only the single lot for one homeowner, but rather, it can be for entire neighborhoods.

Zen Residence, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design, interior staging by Interior Illusions (photo by Lance Gerber)
Zen Residence, Palm Springs, California, by Poon Design, (staging by Interior Illusions, photo by Lance Gerber)
© Poon Design Inc.