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08.19.2009
Q&A: Michelle Kaufmann
The future of prefab seems secured, at least now that Michelle Kaufmann is getting back in the game.
A rendering of the West 52nd Street Row Homes.
Courtesy Michelle Kaufman Designs

AN associate editor Lydia Lee contacted Northern California prefab pioneer Michelle Kaufmann about the recent closure of her company, Michelle Kaufmann Designs (MKD). But Kaufmann had very good news to share: She is finalizing details with a partner to continue her prefabricated housing work, using new technology to make the homes available to more people. The two talked about the upcoming deal, the large-scale developments Kaufmann is working on, and what the future of prefab looks like.


Kaufmann
 
One of Kaufmann's Houses under construction. Or is it under fabrication?
 
A pre-fab apartment building proposed for New York.
 
All images Courtesy Michelle Kaufman Designs
 
AN: It’s exciting to hear that your houses are going to continue to be available. How did the deal happen?

Michelle Kaufmann:
It is really a small community in the prefab green space, so we knew of each other’s work. However, a client of mine, who also knew the CEO of this company, thought the two of us could do some interesting things together. She invited this CEO to visit her Glidehouse [a Kaufmann design], and put the two of us in contact. That is part of the reason I am not giving up and excited about the next chapter: because our clients—many of whom are like family to me now—continue to be such great supporters and innovators in themselves.

Now that Marmol Radziner has also shut their factory, do you think the model of architect-as-manufacturer is untenable?


The model may need to be rethought, but it was the right thing to do at the time. When I started out, factories didn’t want to work with me. They didn’t think anyone would want what we were proposing, and they were just used to building substandard crap. Once we had the experience of running our own factory, we became much better factory partners, because we could say, “Look, this is possible.” We couldn’t approach them just as naive architects, but with a depth of knowledge, an understanding of the technology and manufacturing, so that we could have true conversations. And that takes a while. So the unfortunate thing about the closing of MKD is that we were just starting to have those discussions with more factories.

It seems like the companies that make traditional prefabs are starting to take a page out of your playbook. What do you think of Warren Buffett’s company, Clayton Homes, and its $100,000 I-House with the butterfly roof?

I think it’s a great legitimizer of the idea of green prefab, and it got a lot of press. But I haven’t seen it in person, so I don’t know if it feels like a solid, quality structure. There’s a huge difference between the standards for manufactured homes, which is what Clayton Homes produces, and modular homes, which is what the Marmol factory and ours produced. There’s still this idea out there that if your home comes out of a factory, it’s going to be a trailer home. But modular homes are built to the same code as site-built houses.

Bringing the price down for modern prefab is such a challenge. How do you think we’ll crack that nut?

When we had our factory, it was tough to get price points down just doing one and two at a time. And with the current unpredictability in securing a home loan, that uncertainty really doesn’t fit well with the requirements of a factory. When you’re doing 20 at one time, that’s when the price points start to get very interesting. That’s part of the reason I’m very interested in working on communities, like the one in Denver.

Kaufman sits on the steps to one of her homes.

Tell us about that project.

For Aria Denver, I’m working with Susan Powers of Urban Ventures. She’s one of these developers that really believes in quality vs. quantity, and sees this new development as the future. It’s going to have a mix of affordable and market-rate housing, and the plan is to take advantage of its proximity to Regis University and make it a lifetime learning community, diverse in income and age and background. We’re looking at community gardens and alternative energy. There’s going to be 106 houses total, and the first phase, which is eight homes, was just installed last week.

This phase was designed specifically for a group of nuns, so seven of the eight homes are townhouse units, but the eighth house will be more of a shared group space and has a particularly big kitchen. All of the homes face one another, with living rooms that open to a shared courtyard. In other parts of the community, we’re designing homes where there are sliding fences, so if you decide you want to have a barbecue with your neighbor, you can open the walls between the two backyards and have one big space. We’re looking at different ways design can help cultivate community.

You’ve talked about the horrible experience of house-hunting, and how that inspired you to build your own—and then go into prefab. Has living in your custom-built home in Marin County been all that you expected?

I do love living in the middle of nowhere, but I also miss a sense of community. I think in an urban situation, you create that for yourself. But there are other models besides cities and badly designed subdivisions. In my work on these developments, I’m definitely imagining how I would like to live. These days, more people are working from home, and live apart from their extended family, so our communities are different.

What else are you working on?

I’m designing a couple of small hotels, including a 30-room fishing resort in the Bahamas, which is going to be zero-energy. It’s going to be a great environment to show how green can be beautiful, while educating visitors with things like monitors that will show people how much water and energy they’re using. While they’re in this beautiful natural habitat, it’s the perfect time to remind people of what’s worth preserving.

A version of this article appeared in AN 06_08.19.2009_CA.

Lydia Lee