Lock, Stock & Module

Photos Fawn Art Photography
French designer

Jean Prouvé’s Tropical House, a prototype of prefabricated housing that remains on display in the courtyard of the Hammer Museum through the end of the year, was made to be easily transported on an airplane. When the lightweight steel-and-aluminum structure, originally installed in Brazzaville, Congo, in 1951, is disassembled and moved to its next destination, it will leave by truck in a shipping container. But the point is that it


fly Air France.

Today’s prefab homes, built for road transport, are considerably less compact, but no less stylish. You can’t throw a steel beam without hitting an article about this booming design movement, and while it’s happening everywhere from Massachusetts to Minneapolis, Southern California is still the Promised Land.

“Los Angeles already has a rich history of modernism in place,” says Allison Arieff, editor in chief of Dwell, the San Francisco shelter magazine credited with giving prefab a face-lift. “You don’t have to create a market from scratch, you’ve got a lot of creative people who are drawn to it already. We cover tons of stuff in L.A.; the climate is there for it, both the literal and the figurative.”

Over the Halloween weekend, Dwell and the Hammer hosted “Prefab Now,” a three-day conference that sold out weeks in advance. Three hundred people came from all over the country for the chance to tour private homes, hear talks by historians and architects (including locals Jennifer Siegal and Leo Marmol), and sip cocktails in the proto-prefab Schindler House, built in 1922.

It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago prefab had “the worst of all possible stigmas and couldn’t be an unsexier topic,” says Arieff, who co-authored the 2002 book Prefab. “When I started working on the book, people were like, ‘Oh, greeeat.’The prevailing notion of prefab was of cookie-cutter crap houses going down the highway that were gonna blow away, or mobile homes that no one would want to live in.”

In fact, most modern prefabricated homes are framed with industrial steel, the strength of which allows for airy, open spaces and broad expanses of glass. While there are almost as many definitions of prefab as there are architects tuning in and turning on to it, at its most purely defined, the term refers to a structure or module that is built in a factory and then moved, intact, to a site where it is installed on a foundation. This method makes for less waste, the structures are more sound because they’re finished in a controlled environment, and the actual installation can take place in a short period of time, sometimes as little as a day. Because of road restrictions, modules can’t exceed 16 feet in width, but they can be stacked and linked up in various configurations.

Siegal, principal of the Office of Mobile Design in Venice, has essentially redefined mobile home as a construction criterion rather than a look or a lifestyle. In other words, think beyond the trailer park. Her sleek, two-story Swell House will soon be installed on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, and she is developing a new line called Take Home in Desert Hot Springs. The SCI-Arc graduate and professor at Woodbury University believes that within five years, 50 percent of all residences will be prefabricated. “I just think that there’s no other way out,” she says. “Building costs are just going up and up, and people can’t afford to build anymore . . . I think another reason it’s such a popular idea is that people see it as a solution to a growing [large-scale] economic problem.”

If Siegal’s right, the movement just may come full circle to fulfill the Case Study program’s postwar objective of bringing affordable, mass-produced modern housing to the Southern California middle class. Right now, most of the buyers are affluent designophiles for whom an average price of $500,000 — or roughly $200 a square foot, plus land and foundation — is a bargain, especially compared to the Neutra or Koenig Case Studies they covet, but that’s shifting as more people embrace design in their everyday lives.

A few brand names come up repeatedly in discussions about this trend: IKEA, Target, Apple and Prius. “The importance of something like IKEA,” says Siegal, “is the introduction of design into the mass mentality. The idea that good design matters is something that it took Americans a long time to understand or appreciate.” The unwillingness or inability of Americans to appreciate the modernist sensibility is part of the reason the Case Study program failed in the first place; apparently, features like a flat roof and the absence of molding just didn’t say “home sweet home” like chimneyed peaks and eyelet curtains could. Stores like IKEA or Target have spawned a brand-new market in consumers who never thought twice about living in a big glass box in the desert but do think their new toilet-bowl brush by Michael Graves is pretty groovy. The prefab designers are counting on that aesthetic to go macro.

 Leo Marmol’s Desert
Hot Springs home is
Marmol Radziner’s prototype.

In October,

another Venice architecture firm, Marmol Radziner, launched a prefab division, with Leo Marmol’s Desert Hot Springs home as the prototype. The firm has worked on a number of high-profile projects, including the restoration of designer Tom Ford’s Neutra house in Palm Springs, and this new venture, which required the construction of a 65,000-square-foot plant in Vernon, is a big vote of confidence for the burgeoning industry.

Marmol says it’s great to be part of that growth, but he thinks his fellow prefabbers need to start walking the walk. “For a long time there’s been a great deal of talk and rendering. It’s not until very recently that the talk can translate into something physical. Until we get more built objects out there and put more people in real houses, this industry won’t be taken seriously enough.” What makes Marmol Radziner Prefab different, he adds, is that the firm is made up of not only architects but also general contractors. “We accept the challenge of producing the ideas we imagine.”

The Desert House, Marmol’s family weekend home, is a single-story, putty-colored structure (with a main house and a guest wing) that blends into the brush. Covered decks border the pool, halls are wood-paneled, and open-air cutouts in the walls frame the mountain views. All of it serves the firm’s mission of expanding interior space to the exterior. This is one of the founding principles of modernism, of course, but Marmol says that his company’s interest in modernism is “less of an aesthetic and more of a lifestyle.”

Prefabrication happens to be the means to that end. “We’re not obsessed with the Industrial Revolution, we’re much more obsessed with the simple beauty of living with nature. The technology will allow us to make that available to more people.” Since the launch, Marmol Radziner Prefab has signed contracts to build three homes and is negotiating five others.

 Jennifer Siegal’s Swell
House will soon be installed
on Abbot Kinney Boulevard
in Venice.

Steve Glenn has much bigger plans

for LivingHomes, a green prefab residential community he is developing in Joshua Tree. The company’s motto is “Nature Made, Factory Built,” and Glenn, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur who worked for Apple and founded the Internet think tank IdeaLab, sees his market in that same group of people who shop at IKEA and buy Apple computers and drive hybrid cars. “Our bet is that these kinds of people are actually interested in living in communities that have other folks like them, for all the same reasons that people like living in a golf community.” Glenn names Joseph Eichler, a California developer who built 11,000 modern homes between 1950 and 1974, as a major inspiration.

Glenn commissioned SCI-Arc founder Ray Kappe, whom many consider to be the premier architect of the 1970s California wood house, to design the first LivingHome. Kappe’s two-story model addresses environmental as well as economic and visual concerns. It wasn’t a big leap to prefab production.

“If you care to do things using non-traditional materials in buildings,” says Glenn, listing steel frames, reclaimed wood, gray-water systems, and radiant floor systems hooked to solar water-heating systems (all things that most home builders have little or no experience with), “you need to look for production methods that will reduce the costs. [Prefab] was clearly the one way, if properly applied, that you could get some serious cost economies on the production side.”

At the suggestion that factory production may work against the image of LivingHomes, Glenn scoffs: “The problem people have with mobile homes isn’t that they were built in factories. They don’t look good, and they don’t have a good energy. But you build a house with good energy, great space — who cares how it was built?”

Sustainability comes first for another local architect, David Hertz, and he’s found that prefabrication suits his purposes as well — with a twist. Hertz is building one home by the beach from refrigeration panels normally used to make walk-in coolers (“great insulation”), and a compound on an estate in Malibu is to be constructed entirely from sections of mothballed airplanes rusting in the desert. “You can buy an entire 747, a $200 million machine,” he notes, “for the price of a car: 50 grand.” Incidentally, they’re 100 percent post-consumer waste. “That is definitely prefab, in my definition.”

Hertz is also on board to design the second LivingHomes development with Steve Glenn. The project is still in its infancy, and Hertz is legally restricted from going into any details, but if his previous innovations are an indication, it will challenge many of the current notions of prefab. Asked if this new line of homes will be built in the company’s present factory, he answers vaguely, “Not necessarily.” The vision comes first, and if it can’t be realized within that particular factory’s system, Hertz says he isn’t going to sweat it. “We can just build another factory.”

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