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Unsustainable?

Cover story

Visionary Venice designer Jennifer Siegal imagines a thriving market for environmentally friendly prefab housing. But in the real world, will her vision prove...unsustainable?

June 12, 2005|Eryn Brown | Eryn Brown's last piece for the magazine was about traditionalist Catholic churches.

Jennifer Siegal's stomach is grumbling, which is causing audio problems for a TV crew that has invaded her sunny Venice office. "We've got an anomaly!" the sound guy shouts. Siegal, a 39-year-old designer, has already been answering a producer's questions for an hour. She sits in a vintage Steelcase desk chair and fiddles impatiently with her mike. "TV is incredibly weird," she says.

She should know. Her grand scheme for plopping $99,000 Modernist homes onto vacant lots most anywhere is making the phone ring--and not just with calls from extremists in the shelter media subculture. Publications from Esquire to the New York Times want to hear about her plan to bring a historically upscale design aesthetic to the eco-attuned masses.

Once they wrap up in the office, the crew du jour, from the Fine Living Network cable channel, plans to tail Siegal to a factory in the wind-swept Inland Empire where a contractor is building her first Portable House of steel, lots of glass and sustainable materials such as Plyboo (bamboo flooring) and Biofiber Composite (sunflower seed-based interior walls). Buyers will provide the land and the foundation, pick colors from a short list of options and, four weeks later, watch a crane pluck their 720-square-foot house off a flatbed trailer.

Prefabrication is hardly novel. For many decades architects and designers have tried to emulate the auto industry by making houses on assembly lines. What's new, or rather newly in vogue, is the high design/environmentally conscious/prefab combo. Siegal's concept illustrates the potential for housing, particularly on modest parcels in the urban cores of Southern California.

Except there's a problem. For all of the Portable House's adaptability, simplicity and affordability on the computer screen, it shares with other "pretty fab" projects nationwide a propensity for being difficult and pricey to build. It's not housing for people seeking an inexpensive alternative to conventional tract-home design. At least not yet.

But no one is worrying about that today. The TV crew loads its gear into a truck and follows Siegal from Abbot Kinney Boulevard to a place she calls Ecoville.

A New Hampshire native, Siegal developed her own architecture major at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York. After graduating in 1987, she worked in the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, a firm known for designing skyscrapers and airports. She eventually went back to school, pursuing a master's degree at the freethinking Southern California Institute of Architecture in downtown Los Angeles. Her love of Southern California's landscape, as well as the region's diversity and artistic freedom--"it's not as much of an old boys' club as Boston or New York," she says--persuaded her to settle down.

Siegal began teaching at Burbank's Woodbury University, and in 1998 started the Office of Mobile Design. It dovetailed with her passion for trucks and Airstream trailers, and promoted a philosophy she called New Nomadism. The thinking went like this: If people store their lives in devices such as cellphones and laptops, what anchors them to one place? Why can't we take our homes or workplaces with us, building and dissolving communities as we go?

To test her ideas, the designer began creating opportunities to make mobile buildings. She and her Woodbury students teamed up with a Hollywood nonprofit to develop an environmental education vehicle called the Mobile Eco Lab. When Haagen-Dazs invited her to participate in a design contest it was sponsoring, she came up with an ice cream store on wheels called the Pleasure Mobile. Siegal lectured, taught and ultimately cemented her reputation as a leader in her niche with the 2002 publication of the book "Mobile: The Art of Portable Architecture." That same year, her work won her a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University.

Siegal's portable designs also caught the eye of Allison Arieff, editor in chief of San Francisco-based Dwell magazine, a shaker in the prefab housing movement. When Arieff asked Siegal in 2000 if she did prefab houses, the designer replied, "Now I do," and plunged into the groundwork for a 12-foot-wide by 60-foot-long domicile slim enough to travel on a freeway from a factory to its destination. Three years later, Siegal followed this Portable House with the Swellhouse, which incorporated steel modules 13 feet high by 13 feet wide by 26 feet long. It too was prefab, but the client got to decide how the modules would fit together and which interior materials to use.

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