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

For Clare and Gary Freeman, heaven on earth is situated along a rugged canyon in the middle of far west Texas. There, three years ago, they bought some land with the idea of building a house on it. No matter that the nearest town, Fort Davis, is 25 miles away, or that the dirt road to the property, which sits at an elevation of 6,000 feet, sometimes isn’t even passable. The Freemans, who for more than 30 years had called the bustling, fast-growing city of Austin their home, knew that this was where they wanted to be.

Gary, 71, had just recently retired as a biology professor at the University of Texas. For a year he and Clare, 72, weighed their options. Find a homebuilder? Neighbors told them horror stories about local contractors. Build their own home? A prospective neighbor had been doing that for more than 25 years and still wasn’t finished, “so we figured that was not the way for us to go,” Clare says.

Instead, the Freemans bought their house brand-new, in the form of a kit, over the Internet in mid-2007. It was delivered from the factory on a tractor-trailer, ready for construction. Last October, a little more than a year after they’d ordered the house online, they moved in.

The Freemans may well be in the vanguard of older homebuyers who are looking for outside-the-box answers. Increasingly, Americans at or near retirement age are finding their dream homes among an ever-wider selection of prefab or kit houses, which are typically built in a factory and then shipped to their ultimate destinations, assembled and finished.

To be sure, the nation’s economic crisis has hit the prefab home industry as it has the housing market in general, given the scarcity of lending. On the plus side, though, prefab construction has built-in advantages that mean lower risks in terms of time and money over houses built piece by piece on a site. Factory-built homes, including mobile homes, typically go for less than site-built homes: $41 per square foot versus $93 per square foot, based on 2007 statistics. Some of the savings come because building a house in an indoor factory process wastes less time and materials than building in the elements, says Robert Robotti of Robotti & Co., a New York-based investment adviser.

But the appeal of prefab isn’t just price. Many buyers are looking for architecturally striking designs that don’t resemble the cookie-cutter models offered by most homebuilders and developers, and, as Sam Grawe, editor-in-chief ofDwellmagazine points out, prefab isn’t the “trailer-trashy industry” that it used to be. Maybe buyers are relocating for retirement or aiming to downsize after their children have left home. Maybe they’re looking for a lower-hassle way to add a small cottage, office or studio to property they already own. Maybe they want a “greener,” more energy-efficient house, or a house that will be easier to live in as they grow older.

Or maybe they just want a hand in designing a home but don’t want to start from scratch with an architect. Collaborating with FlatPak of Minneapolis, the Freemans in Texas worked out a house with huge glass windows and doors set within wall panels made of a tough fiber-cement material. “It’s a box,” says Clare.

“But,” Gary quickly adds, “it’s a very nice-looking box.”

An old idea renewed

FlatPak is one of a few dozen companies across the United States that sell prefab or modular homes with distinctly modern or unconventional designs. Hundreds of other companies sell more conventional factory-built homes that typically offer much less in the way of customization and curb appeal.

FlatPak is reviving the idea of the mail-order house from the early 20th century, when Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, Aladdin and others sold more than 100,000 such houses across the country. Today, rather than thumbing through a catalog the size of a phone book, prospective buyers compare various models, options and costs online.

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.

“Six hours later, there’s the house,” Haney recalls. He notes that it has no stairs, except a flight down to the wine cellar—this is vineyard country, after all. “I plan to live the rest of my life here,” he says. “I don’t want stairs.”

Indeed, prefabs can offer buyers like Haney lots of design options that will keep their homes accessible and easy to navigate as they age, such as no-step entrances and interiors, and wide-open floor plans that basically eliminate most doorways and hallways. By working directly with an architect from the get-go, buyers can even have such features as extra lighting, handrails and lever door handles made integral to the home’s design.

Looking (sometimes) before leaping

In these uncertain economic times, prospective prefab buyers should carefully check out any company before entering into a contract. Empyrean International, the builder of Deck Houses, Acorn Homes and Dwell Homes, abruptly closed last October—a victim of the nationwide credit crunch, its founder and owner said. A court-appointed receiver has since taken control of the company and put it up for sale.

Prospective buyers are also well advised to visit a model home before signing on the dotted line, as Haney and Yu did, though it is possible to order a home sight unseen, apart from pictures on the Internet.

Mary Griffith of Sloansville, N.Y., loves the new prefab house that she and her husband, Bill, moved into last October—a 1,200-square-foot “weeHouse” designed by Alchemy Architects of St. Paul, Minn.—but wishes she had seen it first. “We never actually met them until the day it was set on the foundation,” Griffith, 52, says. “It’s a pretty big leap to buy a house on the Internet and spend that much money and not know what it’s going to look like.” Still, having researched a number of different types of prefab designs, they kept coming back to the weeHouse because they “really loved the style,” she says—a simple box wrapped in dark, cement-based siding with large windows and rich wood interiors.

Architect Rocio Romero, who designs and sells high-tech, modernist LV Homes, conducts open-house tours that give attendees some hands-on time as well as the opportunity to talk with her staff about design features, custom design options, the building process and construction costs.

At 1,150 square feet, the basic LV Home has two bedrooms, two baths and an open, light-filled floor plan at a price of about $36,000—not counting foundation, windows, roof, and interior finish-out, which typically add anywhere from $80,000 to $185,000 in costs. The entire kit for the home, built near her company’s headquarters in Perryville, Mo., fits on a single truck.

Romero’s fans include Marian Anderson of South Haven, Mich., a sculptor who saw in the LV the perfect studio for the seven wooded acres on which she and her husband live. “I’m 88 years old and it’s crazy for me to build a new studio at this stage of my life,” Anderson says, “but everybody who sees it loves it.”

Brad McKee is a contributing editor to the magazines I.D. and Architect.

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