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From the kit to the caboodle: Picturing the prefab possibilities

Prefabulous The House of Your Dreams, Delivered Fresh From the Factory Sheri Koones Taunton Press; 218 pp., $25

June 03, 2007|Maggie Barnett | Times Staff Writer

IF you think prefab means a double-wide trailer home, think again. These days, it may be an eight-bedroom, eight-bathroom villa.

Prefabricated housing has come a long way from the kit homes of the early 1900s. Today, just about any style and size is possible with the variety of building systems available.

"Prefabulous," by Sheri Koones, highlights these construction methods and provides illustrations of finished houses and a resource list.

Building systems include modular panels, structural insulated panels, timber frame, log construction, concrete and steel. A chapter is devoted to each type of construction, with at least two finished projects lavishly illustrated.

The cover photo is of a 7,100-square-foot prefab home built in Lake Geneva, Wis. That state's cold wintertime temperatures prompted the architect to opt for a panelized home. The heavily insulated panels are more energy-efficient, and construction time was shortened considerably. Panelized construction is made to specifications in a factory and may include insulation and windows. Roof, floor and wall sections are built indoors on tables rather than on the ground and are shielded from the vagaries of weather. The panels are shipped to the worksite and assembled there.

Modular systems are similar to the mobile homes of yesteryear, designed to fit on flatbed trucks and arranged on site.

The book features architect Michelle Kaufmann's 1,800-square-foot Sunset Breezehouse, sponsored by Sunset Magazine, in Menlo Park, Calif. The design consists of two rectangular modules, bisected by a slate-floored interior space that functions as the breezeway. Two walls of folding glass doors (NanaWalls) open to the outdoors. Following the growing trend toward green, the house's counter tops are made of concrete, recycled paper and ash.

Timber-frame and log home construction are time-tested techniques included in the book. The prefab difference is that logs or timbers can be tooled in factories using computer-generated specifications rather than hewed by hand on-site.

The advantages of all these prefab systems, the author says, are efficiency, conservation and stronger, tighter construction.

However, the initial costs are sometimes higher, and state and local building codes may be written in rigid ways that effectively do not permit new building techniques.

One Topanga couple, for example, told their story in a recent issue of Dwell magazine. They have been trying to get approval to build a green home with SIP (structurally insulated panels). The permit process has gone on for three years. The bureaucratic travails of innovative building are glossed over in the book.

This is a well-organized and smartly illustrated book, with brief sidebars on incidental information such as architectural styles and construction financing.

It is not comprehensive in terms of explaining the technologies, but the photos speak volumes and the homeowners' experiences provide insight.

The valuable and up-to-date resource guide includes builders, contractors and architects who are willing to experiment and are from all over the country, including sources in Southern California.

The book gives a surprising glimpse at what is possible in prefab today, and browsing its pages, it looks like just about anything is possible.

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