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Green prefab firm Michelle Kaufmann Designs is closing

May 26, 2009 |  4:08 pm

Green prefab architecture firm Michelle Kaufmann Designs is calling it quits, a victim of the credit crisis and broader woes in the economy. In a letter sent over Memorial Day weekend, Kaufmann told clients the firm would close by the end of this week. She confirmed the news in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon.

Solaire Kaufmann, who worked for Frank Gehry and Michael Graves early in her career, was a pioneer in the so-called modern prefab movement of recent years. She was also one of the first architects to make a persuasive case that prefab design, which reduces construction waste and damage to building sites, among other benefits, was in a number of ways synonymous with sustainability.

After launching her own firm in Northern California in 2004, she oversaw an office that grew to include two dozen staffers, operated its own factory outside Seattle and completed more than 40 prefab houses, most of them on the West Coast. The firm developed several house templates and also offered lighting, sinks and other products on its website.

Kaufmann sold the factory last year and in November trimmed the size of her Oakland office to 17. She thought those moves would help see the firm through the recession. But two factories MKD worked with have gone out of business since then, and clients and potential clients have found it almost impossible to get financing.

"Being a small company without significant reserves, that was more head wind than we could bear," she said.

The news is only the latest chapter in the long, bumpy history of the modern prefab movement. Since the early years of the 20th century, architects including Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius and a long list of California modernists have been trying to figure out why ambitious architecture can't be turned out in factories the way cars or home furnishings are, taking advantage of economies of scale to bring top-notch residential design to a broad public.

But in every case those dreams have foundered; despite the media attention showered on sleek new designs in the last five years, the newest generation of modern prefab has captured only a tiny sliver of the home-building market. And with the construction costs of site-built houses falling thanks to the recession, prefab may lose some of the cost savings it has enjoyed over traditional architecture.

Kaufmann's own efforts, she said, were undermined by the economy's rise and its fall. During the last few years of the housing boom, as she was starting out, many factories were so busy making money with conventional prefab construction that they saw no reason to experiment with more innovative designs. As the economy has soured, many of those same factories have gone out of business entirely. And lenders, who during the boom looked for excuses to approve even the most exotic mortgages, have taken on the kind of conservatism that formerly marked prefab builders.

Kaufmann has been working with her clients -- some with houses in construction, others earlier in the design process -- to put them in a position to build their projects with other firms, if they choose. She said she has been in preliminary talks with large home-building companies that may be interested in producing her designs or working with her as a consultant.

She added that she is particularly drawn, going forward, to the idea of developing multifamily projects rather than individual houses. In many ways that shift matches one in the larger sustainable-design movement, which is increasingly focused on macro issues and green urbanism rather than heralding the performance of a standalone house on a large suburban lot.

"I want to focus on communities," she said, mentioning "a new spin" on co-housing and compounds for groups of families and retirees as two possible models for her consulting work. "I think we're realizing that there is more than one model for the American Dream."

-- Christopher Hawthorne

(Disclosure: Hawthorne included Kaufmann's work in his 2005 book on sustainable architecture, "The Green House," and a full-scale section of one of her firm's houses was included in a subsequent exhibition at the National Building Museum for which he served as consulting curator.)

Photo: MKD's Solaire House. Credit: John Swain Photography.

Comments () | Archives (22)

Given that "green" means "more expensive than necessary", it's not surprising these kinds of projects are faltering in a time like this...

As a designer of prefab custom homes I myself am very sad to see MKD go under. Her work has been an inspiration to me, but I can understand the financial woes, and having customer's ready to build but cannot get financed. Is there some way we can keep up with what she is doing for consulting?

MKD, along with a number of prefab designers have revolutionized home design over the past few years. Her firm definitely tried to create a dent in the design world and I think they did succeed in creating a good level of awareness. This movement will go on, especially if a happy medium between cost and quality can be met. I STILL WANT MY BREEZEHOUSE THOUGH!!!

Such a shame! I'm sure she'll come back soon, with more ideas and inspiration..

I am sure she's in not going to climb under a rock. She'll be back with something great!

This is some of the saddest news I have heard. Have been a huge fan of MKD design's for years. Her designs revolutionized the art of prefab. I am with Rommel, I dreamed one day of living in my very own Breezehouse........I will still hold on to that dream!

I disagree with the first comment in this list.

I emailed Ms. Kaufmann to please attempt to come back, but this time with a REAL investor - not the current crop of lame, dodgy 'lenders' we see in action.

Seriously, the product she offers if far superior to the McMansions going up. Furthermore, it doesn't really seem difficult to sell on low operating costs of her designs over the over-priced conventional shacks that sell out there.

What she really needs is a true, long term, INVESTOR - a real one, that's not looking to gamble, but rather build an industry sector. I hope she comes back as soon as she can swing'n and building.

I am deeply saddened by this news. I have been a big fan of MKD.
I can only wish her all the best for the future.

Sad news.

MK had a vision that is consistent with where the building sector should be heading.

MKD going under doesn't mean the green building sector isn't working; it's a collateral impact from the recession. As was noted in a previous post, I am confident MK will be back under more clement (financial) skies.

She's found her niche

Despite delivering a superior product at a lower cost the cyclical economics of real estate has taken down this industry once again. Prefab builders depend on third party suppliers and economies of scale. They must prorate the start up costs of factories and worker training into their product over a timeframe that sadly is longer than the typical bust and boom real estate economic cycle. By closing her factory and laying of the workers she has trained to build what is a superior product Michele Kaufman will now lose a substantial investment that cannot be recovered. The typical building contractor she competes with who sells a more expensive inferior product can just store his tools in his garage, lay off a crew that he didn’t train, (that can also be recreated overnight at little cost) and go on vacation (or unemployment) until the economy recovers. When it does his only start-up cost will be the time it takes to write a bid. This paradigm vividly demonstrates why factory-built, modular housing has never gained permanence in the marketplace, it’s not the product or the cost or consumer resistance, it’s the inability of under capitalized startups to survive a recession when demand falls off a cliff and bills have to be paid. It’s the same cyclical economic problems that are killing GM and Chrysler the difference being that Michelle Kaufman made a great product, perfectly designed for the times that our country really needs. What this nascent and necessary industry has never had, and likely will never have, is a federal bailout, i.e. support, that would ensure their survival until this recession is over and their market recovers. This is a real loss because we all need the industry that she and others were starting to create.

Michelle Kaufmann Designs was an inspiration and trendsetter for modern prefab green and you will see a lot of resemblance in our EcoUrban Homes with many of MKD's products. I wish her and her staff the best and am positive much good will come from the seeds she has sown. That said, factory-built green modular makes sense and CAN be delivered with or without the modern edge to large markets at move-in square foot costs of around $125/sq. ft. I really loved the high-designed green homes MKD offered but $250 per sq. foot is just simply not feasible for the majority of folks passionate about green prefab. Much of what has made our model slow to take off in St. Louis, MO has been the lack of availability and cost of well-located buildable lots. Good, urban infill lots are a key component in moving toward a replicable model for successful green prefab in urban areas. Also, modular factories HAVE to invest in better front-office talent...you might get a solid modular component for $50/sq. ft delivered but you will bang your head against so many walls that it may just not be worth it. Green prefab makes sense (and while I prefer it) modern design doesn't have to be part of the equation. It can be one option, but we shouldn't cut off our nose to spite our face. Thanks Michelle for the inspiration and for raising the bar!

Jay Swoboda

I know that times are tough for credit but with all the tax incentives you would think that it would stimulate business.

This provides more evidence that the boom and bust cycle of the economy is not only hard on those in the construction industry and related businesses, but bad for moving towards a more sustainable, lower energy use future as well. I'm a fan of MK's work and was hoping to see more of the houses built. Nascent industries like this are going to need more help if we are serious about creating a more energy-efficient future. GM can go the way of the dinosaur. They should be bailing out businesses like this.

it is what we don't know that is the real reason that MKD was not successful in the prefab environment. best of luck!

I visited the MKD house that was erected on the grounds of the Museum of Science + Industry in Chicago. It was a terrific design. It is too bad that the pinheads in Washington feel the need to bail out loser GM but can't seem to bother with helping companies like MKD that are really trying to make a difference.

I love the MKD and am saddened to hear that things are not going well but Michelle is a true designer and I love the direction she's planning. If she has the opportunity, it would be great to see her sell her designs & floor plans from the past as she continues moving forward. Michelle is a role model for many. Michelle, keep your chin up; you are amazing!

Perhaps she can indeed build communities to cooperatives of 50-plus persons seeking to live in an enlightened way later in life.

I read an article in the LA Times about the current demise of prefab and came across a number of websites with information, and comments about MKD, about which, living in The Netherlands, I have to plead ignorance.

My work involves getting Dutch and Belgian companies into building projects in the UK, where high degrees of off-site prefabrication are required, in order to reduce the total as-built cost of a project.
This involves "prefab" but is broader in its context than simply trying to manufacture a complete house unit by flat-pack or volumetric methods.

In addition, here we do not have a massive supply to totally, timber frame, prefabricated houses, but we combine concrete construction with timber frame elements.

This means there are factories which can supply either segments, but, for example, a mass housing project will be fast-track concrete shells - which permit completely free layout of internal partitions, with the front and rear facades constructed of fully factory finished, prefabricated elements, which in turn incorporate as many of the services as possible.
With almost certainly a pitched roof construction, utilizing the roof space, a timber hinged roof will be installed in one hour - ready to receive the roof tiles.

Therefore a typical UK main contractor's build time for say 120 units will take 15 months to handover, but the method described will complete in 9 months.

The aim is to reduce not just the build cost, but the "as-built" cost, so the concept of off-site prefabrication, reducing or eliminating wet trades - including decoration - is taken even to installing doors and frames. In addition, the reduction of scaffolding and crane hire, site overheads, insurance, fast return on investment etc, are all put into the assessment.

What I see from the article is a superbly designed, mainly timber frame, luxury market segment; and on various websites I see concrete housing.
What I don't see however is the combination of concrete and timber in a fast build method.

I am very interested in hearing from anyone involved in low cost housing projects, if for nothing more than an exchange of ideas.

Is there anyone interested in a discussion please?

Anthony Redhead.
The Netherlands.

We are a small modular factory in Utah (Irontown Housing Company) and have watched MKD for many years as the leader of modernistic design. We have done some similar modernistic homes for other architects and are familiar with the type of work they have done. I am sure she will rise from the ashes in the future as it is hard to keep an artist down.

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