In 2002 Allison Arieff and Bryan Burkhart wrote Prefab and started a revolution. Architects and entrepreneurs all over America started looking at prefab differently. Early off the mark were Michelle Kaufmann, who launched her Glidehouse, and myself, launching the Q. It was an exciting time, we were all going to reinvent the building industry. We had so many cute lines- "you don't build a car in a driveway, why would you build a house in a field" and we had to beat all of the other architects and designers off with a stick, there were so many throwing their pencils into the ring.
Seven years on, Allison, Bryan, Michelle and I gathered this past weekend at Michelle's Glidehouse with some other very talented and creative people, but we didn't talk much about prefab. The wounds are too fresh.
Allison, Michelle, Bryan and I had one of those Internet relationships; we had met in person exactly three times but corresponded, read each others work, and I considered them friends. But when we got together this weekend, I felt more in common with them, a closer bond, than with almost anyone I know in the world outside of my wife and kids. It took me a while to figure out why, but I realized that we were like Mal and Wash and Zoë in Serenity; We fought a war together to change an industry and we lost together. Why?
1. We really were not changing the industry as much as we thought.
It is not like the Toll Brothers went out with axes and chopped down trees together, they used 2x4s and 4x8s and modularized components. The industry was pretty efficient, and they didn't have to pay for things like factories and pensions and union dues, since most of the people who built the houses were subcontractors who were happy to work outside and the customers were happy to take what they got. This is an immensely flexible system. Putting it under a roof caused as many problems as it solved.
2. We really were not addressing the problem.
Witold Rybczynski wrote a book called The Most Beautiful House in the World, and of course it was his own. Michelle's is to my mind right now the most beautiful house in the world, for an architect with guts and a real vision got to build it, on a stunning property. It is a gem that meets Rybczynski's criterion that "The most beautiful house in the world is the one that you build for yourself."
But it is an hour's drive from the City and it is in what my father would have called Pishkaville, the middle of nowhere. You not only have to drive fifteen minutes to get a quart of milk, you take your life in your hands doing it. It is stunning and beautiful but it is not what we signed up for when we got into the prefab movement, the one-in-a million Marin county site at the end of the most treacherous road this side of the Himalayas, which don't have old ladies in SUVs going through stop signs.
We thought we were building a housing type that would be affordable and accessible to all, while ignoring the fact that they all had to go on one-off sites purchased by individuals.
3. We really never had a chance.
Development historically was about improving the yield of land, planting houses instead of corn. We dreamt of making good green modern housing affordable, about giving everyone the option of having a high quality architect-designed home, about giving people a catalogue of real choices.
But the developers were making money doing what they were doing and saw no reason to change. There are only two operating modes in real estate: Greed and Fear. In neither mode do people take a chance on a different way of doing things.
Until we control the land and can say "let's build a green trailer park" or "let's build a crazy boomer cohousing project" we are just gnawing at the edges. We lost sight of the reality that it isn't about the architecture, it is about the land. Until we solve that nothing will change.
More on the death of modern prefab:
Home Delivery: Modern Prefab Lives Fast, Dies Young, Leaves Good Looking Corpse
Modern Prefab + Credit Crunch = Teardown
More on Michelle and Allison:
Modern Prefab On The Ropes: Michelle Kaufmann Packs It In
Michelle Kaufmann Invades Yet Another Medium
Michelle Kaufmann on Transformers
Nutrition Labels For Houses
Allison Arieff on the Future of Prefab
Is Your House Making You Look Fat?
Quote of the Day: Bucky Fuller on How We Live