You've seen them, crowding the exits along Highway 26, slithering over the hills like great bloated sea snails. Bland and anonymous, with their fake used-brick fireplaces, vaulted foyers and three-SUV garages. Clunky, outsized homes--a.k.a. "McMansions"--have somehow become the norm for living it up in the Northwest. And not just for anti-depressed Baby Boomers trading individuality for serenity, but for young, sassy, Ikea-shopping, Target-commercial-loving twentysomethings seeking an affordable first home.
But it's not too late to say no to this suburban blight.
A new book by Dwell magazine editor-in-chief Allison Arieff and Airstream history scribe Bryan Burkhart has arrived to shake some sense into the young homebuyer. Prefab takes the reader through the history of prefabricated house construction, reminding us that, double-wides aside, luminaries from Le Corbusier to Philippe Starck have all contributed designs to this much-maligned genre. The book also brings together a group of new and groundbreaking home-design concepts, featuring the recent work of architect-superstars like David Hertz, Thomas Sandell and the Austrian firm KFN. What these houses have in common, besides sleek design, high-quality materials and a modicum of modern chic, is that they are "manufactured." That is, they're constructed offsite as a kit and transported in easily assembled units to their eventual resting place.
I know, I know: The term "manufactured home" conjures unholy visions of pink-painted boxes sided with T-111 cruising down the interstate on a flatbed tagged with "OVERSIZE LOAD." Those humble hutches, weighted with "features" like "glamour bathtubs" and "crystal oak cabinetry," have little to offer but their relatively low price and portability (ever notice how much those mobile homes resemble McMansions in all but size?). But most home buyers who shrink from the stigma of "manufactured" probably don't know that the faux Colonial manors and Victorian estates clogging subdivisions have plenty of prefab elements--steel framing, roof components, decorative panels.
Vive la différence.
The new architect-designed pre-fab homes keep the convenience and portability of trailers while ditching the shabby materials and milquetoast aesthetics. The SU-SI, designed by Austrian brothers Oskar and Johannes Kaufmann of KFN, features spare, horizontal design and airy construction with ample windows. It's part ski lodge on stilts, part mod '60s glass box. It's beautiful. It's cool. And it's cheap--about $50,000, excluding foundation work. Although only one SU-SI has been shipped to America since the first prototype was developed in 1998--it was sold to New York photographer Michael Hranek--demand for smart prefab here in the States is high (the Kaufmanns have a waiting list 100 deep).
If prefab housing is made available on a mass scale, it will present a refreshing alternative to the top-heavy Tudors and hulking haciendas that mindlessly dominate local housing trends. Ikea has already developed and sold 1,100 units of a prefab home called the "BoKlok" (a cutesy derivation of the Swedish for "live smart"). And if Target can attract such heavy weights as Philippe Starck and Cynthia Rowley to design housewares and furniture, can whole homes be far behind?
It's an idea whose time has come. Who needs a 400-square-foot formal dining room, a double-height mud room or, for crying out loud, a glamour bathtub?
Give me a homey SU-SI any day.
by Allison Arieff and Bryan Burkhart (Gibbs Smith, 160 pages, $39.95)
Find Oskar and Johannes at www.kaufmannkaufmann.com .