ALLISON ARIEFF wrote the book "Prefab" in 2002, chronicling the history of prefabricated houses and mapping the possible future of environmentally responsible modular home design and fabrication.
"When I told people what I was doing, they giggled," says Arieff, one of the founders of Dwell and formerly the magazine's editor. "Like, why would anybody write a book on this really mundane ugly architecture?"
Since then, the laughable increasingly has become laudable. On Saturday, Arieff will lead prefab designers Michelle Kaufmann, Jennifer Siegal and Rocio Romero in a panel discussion titled "The Four Women of Prefab" during the annual CA Boom show in Santa Monica.
Here, Arieff shares her opinions about the contemporary design movement she dubs "modern prefab":
Kit houses have been around since Sears Roebuck started selling them 100 years ago, and the Eames House in Pacific Palisades was built from off-the-shelf materials. Why has prefab become popular again?
One of my theories is that lots of people are dissatisfied with the housing stock and that this really promises an alternative. Most of the people I know bought the house they're in because that's what they could afford, not because it's the house they really wanted. Prefab could help deliver variety. I've spent a lot of time visiting housing developments over the last six months, and it's really thoroughly depressing, so the time is right to rethink things. Developers haven't really embraced this concept, but with the housing market so dire, people may be finally recognizing that there might not be such a great future in 10,000-square-foot McMansions.
What is "modern prefab," and what is the importance of making the distinction?
For the majority of people, the idea of prefab is still very much ugly, poorly constructed, cookie-cutter homes. I use "modern prefab" to distinguish from the thousands of tract houses that are built using prefab construction. In my mind, modern prefab suggests prefab homes designed by architects. These days, there is a financial and moral imperative to do things that are more sustainable, and the people who work in modern prefab are also the leading edge.
How has the movement and market changed in the six years since you wrote your book?
Well, there are a lot more books on the subject, but the funny thing is that they pretty much all have the same houses in them. I would say that nationally there are only 100 houses of this type that have actually been built. A lot was over-promised and under-delivered, so now we are going through this period of realism where the consumer wants to see what's available and possible. For a lot of people it's still conceptual -- architecture on paper.
What are the signatures of modern prefab?
Having a home that relies heavily on natural light and ventilation, and floor plans conducive to the way one naturally moves through a house, often get lost in mass home design. In modern prefab, the goal is to create efficiency in design and in living, and the houses also tend to express what they are made of. There are expanses of glass, exposed beams and studs.
To take a blue-sky approach, how can modern prefab make the world a better place to live?
Modern prefab can begin to make a dent in the tragic vernacular homogeneity that plagues this country. People speak all the time of "context" or houses being true to their respective neighborhoods, but what I see when I travel around the country is the same boxes with a tacked-on facade -- French country, Tuscan, Cape Cod, whatever. It's not architecture, and it's not good design.
But beyond the aesthetic, practitioners of modern prefab place an emphasis on smarter, more sustainable building materials. That reduces the massive environmental impact of home-building and makes houses healthier for people to live in as well. The smaller footprint that is often the signature of these homes is also far better for the environment.
What's the first question a consumer should ask a prefab designer?
I'd have a lot of respect for an architect if I described my site and they said, 'Look, you'd be served just as well by doing it stick-built [conventional wood-frame construction].' So a very good question to ask is: "Is there a merit to using a prefab system at all?"
What upsides make it attractive?
If you're attracted to modern architecture, prefab can be a great way to get it. The upsides are quicker construction time, more efficient use of materials, less waste, and the money saved from these things. There's no question that prefab can be quicker or easier than the alternative, but nothing is as quick or cheap as people want it to be. A common mistake people make is [thinking] that it's going to be easy.
To the contrary, on some websites you have to fill out an enormous questionnaire about your property in order to get an answer back. That really forces someone to sit down and think about what they're getting into. . . . The buyer should do due diligence.
What does that include?