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The 1% Is About to Meet the Prefab Home

SAN DIEGO (TheStreet) -- Prefabricated housing doesn't typically inspire images of luxury or the stylish designs of top architects.

Made famous by Sears, Roebuck & Co., which sold more than 100,000 kit houses during the early 20th century, mail-order homes (as they were known then) had two primary attributes: They were inexpensive and quick to assemble. 

Those quaint beginnings, however, are about to be eclipsed by a new chapter in prefab homemaking, this one spearheaded by Fred Carl, founder of Viking Range.

With his new venture, C3 Design, Carl has set out to create luxurious, technologically advanced homes that he says will establish a higher standard in prefab that is appropriate for this century.

"The architecture in itself will be great-looking architecture. The materials, the specifications, the features, the amenities will all be luxury quality," says Carl, who has enlisted some of the country's most notable architects to develop home designs for C3.

Among the first with a prefab design for Carl is award-winning David Rockwell (of The Rockwell Group), best known for designing W Hotels in New York, Paris and Singapore, as well as The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas and Nobu restaurants and hotels around the world.

At the recent Dwell on Design show in Los Angeles, Rockwell unveiled the first of several homes he will design for Carl and C3, called Pinwheel -- a 2,400-square-foot house made up of four rectangular units that pinwheel around a 500-square-foot central courtyard. His design features two bedrooms, a study that can be converted into a third bedroom, two and a half bathrooms and a luxe open kitchen and dining area that includes a 10-foot-long statuary marble kitchen island and professional-grade appliances. 

All of which is a long, long way from Sears & Roebuck catalog homes.

Why even get into prefab homes and take on the challenge of convincing luxury buyers that these are truly luxury properties?

Carl and Rockwell have slightly different answers.

"There's so many advantages over traditional construction. The advantages go on and on -- time, convenience, impact on the environment," Carl says.

Time as an advantage is not all that dissimilar to the prefab home's beginnings with Sears & Roebuck. A typical mail-order precut house with fitted pieces would take only 352 carpenter hours of work, as opposed to 583 hours for a conventional house.

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Carl plans to use advanced manufacturing techniques to further compress the timeframe from design selection to home completion. Just how much he can compress that schedule remains to be seen.

"We would like to think we can dramatically compress the construction cycle and build the typical house, after the foundation, in 25% of the time a house would normally take," says Carl, a fourth-generation homebuilder with 35 years' experience. "These are modular homes. They are almost complete by the time they get to the job site. A lot of the work is already done in factory. We may not meet that goal, but that's our goal."

Prefabricated homes have the advantage of eliminating stress and unpleasant experiences often associated with traditional homebuilding, he says. Think weather delays, missing in action contractors and schedule lags.

"I'm an old homebuilder myself. It can be a very frustrating experience for the owner, due to contractors and subcontractors getting too busy, getting behind schedule, materials coming in wrong, having to reorder. Anything and everything happens at a job site," Carl says. "The whole point of modular prefab is it is not susceptible to weather [and other delays]. It's pretty much completed once it leaves factory."

Rockwell says his decision to get involved in the project was based largely on the challenge it presented, allowing him to move into new areas as an architect.

"One of the things we love to do is invent and try new projects," Rockwell says. "That has pushed us over 30 years." 

"There's something fascinating about jumping into a project where you don't know the answer," he says. "I spent a lot of time with Fred and I think he has a really interesting fabrication mind. He mentioned he was developing this new company and asked if I could start to investigate prefab housing and particularly what he was going to do with structurally integrated panels ... So I got excited about looking at something I thought I knew a lot about -- prefab homes and the notion of efficiency and rapid delivery."

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Rockwell also spent a great deal of time thinking about what defines luxury -- the sense of space and light, materials and texture, and amenities.

The Pinwheel design was greatly influenced by time Rockwell spent in Mexico as a child and the courtyard homes he was exposed to there, where the home is a place of communal celebration. The final design speaks directly to that, breaking out of the typical rectangular box home design and opting for a space that not only creates a central entertaining area, but links all of the surrounding rooms. 

The other benefit of these prefab homes, Rockwell points out, is the ability to customize them.

Exterior materials are easily customized to reflect the owner's preference and local vernacular. Cladding will be offered in a wide variety of textures and tones, but that's just the beginning. Inside too there are choices of finishes, materials, appliances, built-ins and other appointments, ensuring each home is tailored to an owner's tastes and needs.

"Part of what's interesting about these is that they will appeal to someone who is looking for a home, who is modern and contemporary -- and who may have a schedule issue," Rockwell says. "It's going to draw an interesting audience of people who want rapid fabrication, but with a sense of history and richness."

Pricing for the homes are among the details still being worked out, Carl says, but "It will be at the upper end of the spectrum."

He hopes to eventually open showrooms throughout the country where prospective buyers can view the various models. Carl's goal is to create an extensive portfolio of LEED-certified and eco-friendly luxury residences and accessory buildings, including freestanding, self-contained modular wine cellars available for shipping throughout the United States.

As for marketing prefab to people with deep pockets and firm sense of what constitutes luxury, Carl is not intimidated.

"It's a challenge. 'Prefab' is not a word that really resonates with upscale consumers," Carl says. "I'm up to the challenge, I think we can introduce the upscale market to a better way of acquiring and living in a home."

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