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New Kit Houses Make It Easier to Control Cost, Look and Convenience

Those who take the plunge work with a designer online and over the phone to complete the plans and details.

The relative ease of prefab has attracted buyers who want something unconventional yet fear the risk and costs of a custom-built home, says Michael Sylvester, general manager of Dwell on Design, an annual conference sponsored by Dwell magazine that focuses on innovations in architecture and design. Prefab brings more predictability to the process, the product and the price, he points out. “That invites a whole different kind of buyer who doesn’t have money to gamble,” he says.

Although factory-built houses can bring significant efficiencies to a process notorious for cost overruns and delays, prefab homes aren’t necessarily cheaper than their site-built counterparts. The Freemans, for example, spent about $400,000 on their 1,900-square-foot FlatPak house, or about $210 per square foot. Some of the costs were driven up by using high-quality materials and hardware and building on a rough, remote site with no utility hookups or services in place. But architect Douglas Cutler of Wilton, Conn., an early convert to modular construction, spent just $88,000 in 1992 on the basic shell for his contemporary, 2,800-square-foot home. That works out to $49 per square foot in today’s dollars. Acting as his own general contractor, Cutler saw his home go up in a mere five days. The dollar-sign devil is often in the details: the degree of customization requested, how much work is needed to prepare the site, and a seemingly endless array of upgrades in materials, fixtures, finishes, appliances and so forth.

What you get for your money also varies a bit among prefab companies, but generally it works like this: The company supplies the house with a fully finished interior, an equipped kitchen and baths, closets, lighting, and heating and air conditioning. The fee also usually covers all design services, general contracting and construction work. The buyer is responsible for ordering site surveys, soil tests, getting permits, having foundations built and running utilities to the house.

Looking for lifestyle distinction                                                                                     

Michelle Kaufmann, founder of Michelle Kaufmann Designs in Oakland, Calif., says that she expected a mainly young clientele when she first began marketing her idea of housing designed with five “eco-principles” in mind: smart design, use of eco-friendly materials, a healthy living environment, water conservation and energy efficiency. Kaufmann has even created “zero-energy” homes by using superefficient insulation, windows, lights and appliances as well as state-of-the-art heating, cooling and energy-monitoring systems. “But,” she says, “I have been surprised that we have a lot of people in their 50s and 60s who are rethinking how they live.”

Or in their 80s, as was the case with Glen Haney, who recently had one of Kaufmann’s three-bedroom, two-bath prefabs built in Woodacre, Calif. Haney, 81, says the only daunting part of the process was readying the rock-laden site for construction. Last April he and his partner, Wing Yu, moved into a 3,800-square-foot “Breezehouse” set among the picturesque hills of Marin County, north of San Francisco.

Haney and Yu started dreaming of Kaufmann’s Breezehouse in 2005, when they waited for three hours in a crowd of thousands to walk through a demonstration model of the prefab home. “We got back to the car and said, ‘We weren’t really thinking of moving, but we’re going to move,’ ” Haney says. “All we had to do was find a lot.”

The Breezehouse, one of several models of prefab houses offered by Kaufmann, is modular, meaning whole sections of the house arrived preassembled (with floors, cabinets, appliances and even towel bars installed) from a factory in Washington state on three 18-wheelers. The shipment was accompanied by a big crane, which lifted the modules into place.

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