Q&A: Prefab

Casa Chiara, Photo: Jim Turley/SweetWater Photography

At West Coast Green this year, architect Michelle Kaufmann of Michelle Kaufmann Studio, hosted a panel called “The Future of Prefab,” in which she discussed the topic with Ann Hand, CEO of Project Frog and Jennifer Siegal, founder and principal of the Office of Mobile Design. Kaufmann’s Casa Chiara, the first phase of an ambitious multi-unit development called ariaDenver, has recently won first place in the Colorado Sustainable Design Awards (sponsored by AIA Colorado, ULI, and the Colorado Green Building Council). After the panel, I talked with Michelle about where prefab is going, how it relates to sustainability, and why it might be that the prefab design field, like sustainable design, seems to include more women than the architecture field as a whole.

What is your definition of pre-fab, and how does that fit with sustainability? It seems to me that they used to be understood as very different realms, but they have merged. That merge is something you have led, so I’m curious about your personal conception of the terms and their perceptions in the market.

Pre-fabrication is anything made off site and shipped to a site. Under that umbrella are kit buildings, panelized buildings, manufactured housing, modular (which is what I do) that is built on a foundation. My goal is to make thoughtful sustainable design accessible, and I think modular is the way to get there. I know people want healthy, energy efficient homes, and I think modular design helps eliminate waste, control costs, and control quality.

I worked for Frank Gehry for five years, and I learned pre-fab from Frank and his practice. He used it to achieve wild shapes. Lots of those wall systems are made elsewhere, including EMP and Bilbao. For him, this was a means to an end, not an express desire to do prefab.

I think we are seeing this trend throughout the market. Many of the big home builders don’t talk about it, but they are using it to bring costs down. 

As we groan out of our recession and lean towards a greener economy, where does pre-fab fit in?

I am happy for the recession and housing crisis. I am not happy for people to lose their homes, of course. But I think it had to happen, unfortunately. Now, home builders have incentives to change. Consumers now need their dollar to go further; they are looking harder at water and energy efficiencies and what things are made of. I hope we can maximize this moment, where we are seeing change coming from the bottom up, but also from the top down. I think we need both. We all know that if Walmart goes to all organic food, that market will change. That’s why, in this economy, you hear people talking to each other that years ago you did not—Patagonia is talking to Walmart. 

How did you assemble this panel? 

I wanted to get different perspectives on prefab in the room. Allison Arieff, who writes for The New York Times and Good, was unable to join us due to an accident, unfortunately; I invited her because she was really the ‘founding queen’ of making prefab cool again, via the book she wrote with Bryan Burkhart, Prefab (Gibbs Smith, 2002) and her work at Dwell. Jennifer Siegal works in residential and the educational pre-fab space. Her goal is not lower price points but to innovate with less waste; she is active on the research side. Ann Hand comes from the energy and business world; she’s not an architect. She has an interesting approach that advocates learning from the buildings, and applying that info back into rethinking the product.

 So, where is prefab going?

The big question for anyone involved in this space: To get to the ideal of lower cost and lower time frames, it requires a certain amount of volume (homes or classrooms). To get to that scale, however, you need the lower cost and lower time frames. It’s a bit of a chicken/egg problem. To unlock this cycle, I think we’ll be seeing more multifamily work in communities. I just did an eight-unit project in Denver, and the price points really improved. This strategy can unlock those price points. I think we will see more “open source” on these designs—the specs and design are accessible to everyone. Architecture for Humanity is pursuing this effectively; that org is a leader. Information technology is now helping to aggregate site information that could potentially “output” site specific suggestions. That could really change the industry. 

As a co-author of Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design, I have to ask: What do you make of the fact that your future of prefab panel is all women? And to take that a bit further: Do you think that (some) women have certain sensibilities that position them to be effective leaders in green design? If so, what are these?

We always notice when we get together that this segment of our community includes more women than you typically find in architecture circles. There are, of course, men in the group and they are doing amazing work. But it’s long been clear that there is a much higher percentage of women in this group.

I have some theories about this. I used to want to look beyond gender, but I’ve been thinking that simply ignoring it as an issue is not right. I think there is a different cultural expectation of male architects versus female architects. I believe that people expect men to do “capital A architecture”—the biggest, the tallest, etc.—more than they expect that of women. This leaves room for us to play in a different space. Also, adding green to the mix requires sensitivity, something that is still sometimes seen as a sign of weakness in men, sadly. Third, and I don’t know if this is true or not, but I wonder if the nurturing instincts of some women may come into place. “Nesting” is an important inclination in the residential space. Creating a healthful environment for people to live in seems like a natural goal to me, as an architect and a woman.  

 Kira Gould, Associate AIA, LEED AP, a former Metropolis editor, is a writer and director of communications for William McDonough + Partners; she works from the firm’s San Francisco studio. She is also the co-author, with Lance Hosey, of Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design (Ecotone Publishing). Find Women in Green on Facebook; follow Kira Gould on Twitter


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