Siegal's story raises anew the question of whether high-design prefab architecture can ever emerge from the models and the theory books. In the 2002 book "Prefab," Dwell editor Arieff describes how Buckminster Fuller designed mass-produced housing in 1927, and how Richard Neutra, Frank Lloyd Wright and others spun prefab schemes throughout the 20th century. In each case, their ideas gained momentum, but never enough to really excite housing manufacturers or developers with deep pockets.
Even today, as well-known architects such as Leo Marmol and Rocio Romero experiment with prefab, Arieff says large-scale, architect-designed prefab developments are rare. "It's bottom-line reasons," she says. "If you try to build one prefab house, it's usually not cheaper. You have to make 20 to have it be cheaper. But you have to get a stake in the ground before that can happen. Someone needs to make the financial commitment."
Siegal hasn't given up on large-scale prefab. She believes that Ecoville "will morph into another project." She's talking with a real estate developer who has sights on a housing project in Inglewood. And she is working with a business partner to start Precision Designed Homes. PDH's factory in--where else--Riverside will use robots to build prefab houses, taking advantage of just-in-time manufacturing (the inventory management method that delivered huge profits for Dell Computer in the 1990s). "This will change the face of architecture," she promises. "It will slash the price in half."
Siegal says that building a "high-end" house in her new factory will cost just $100 to $120 a square foot, almost half the going rate for a conventional home. It doesn't seem doable--or does it?
"Sometimes the dumber you are, the more able you are to pull something off, because you don't know you can't do it," Siegal says.
The makers of Plyboo and Biofiber Composite are standing by.