The Prefab Dream: Talented Architects Working With a Great Builder Offering Original Designs

©. Lake Flato’s OpenHome design responds to each site and home owner’s needs through floor plan configuration options and appropriate climatic responses, resulting in a healthy and comfortable home. Rendering by Lake | Flato

KieranTimberlake and Lake|Flato team up with Bensonwood to offer OpenHomes

I first met Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake at a conference about modern prefab in Austin, Texas, where there was great excitement about the idea of making green, modern prefab designed by talented (and usually expensive) architects available, accessible and affordable. I will never forget their lecture there, where I learned more about prefab in an hour than I had working in the field for the previous two years. I also learned about their Loblolly House, which I thought was the most remarkable house I had ever seen, putting all their ideas into one place.

Gartner Hype Cycle

Gartner Hype Cycle/CC BY 2.0It was the the Peak of Inflated Expectations on the Gartner Hype Cycle, and we all thought it was the future of building. Then came the Trough of Disillusionment with many of the pioneers disappearing in the Great Recession.

But the idea never went away, and some architects and builders kept at it, working up that slope of enlightenment. Resolution 4 continues doing great work, Steve Glenn and Living Homes and Plant Prefab are still at it, and Tedd Benson kept building at Bensonwood developing new technologies and starting the Unity Homes subsidiary.

KieranTimberlake’s OpenHome design

© KieranTimberlake’s OpenHome design is expandable from 1,000 to 3,000 square feet, with several floorplan, roof profile, and cladding options. Rendering by KieranTimberlake

Now, Tedd Benson is doing what I tried to do 15 years ago at a Canadian prefab company: partner with talented architects to "design homes that offer superior quality construction, flexible designs, and personal access to an architect and builder—without the prohibitive cost and long timeline of a custom home design." He is working with two firms that I have admired for years (see related links below) – KieranTimberlake and Lake|Flato in a new venture called OpenHome.

A dedicated studio space within KieranTimberlake's OpenHome design provides creative or work areas integrated within the floorplan and connected to the outdoors. Rendering by KieranTimberlake

© A dedicated studio space within KieranTimberlake's OpenHome design provides creative or work areas integrated within the floorplan and connected to the outdoors. Rendering by KieranTimberlake

OpenHome combines the three firms’ knowledge and skills in off-site fabrication and residential design amassed over several decades exploring the art and science of prefabricated architecture. Since the 1970s, Bensonwood has developed ultra-precise off-site fabrication methods to make the construction process fast, low stress, and seamless.
Loblolly House

© The integrated components for KieranTimberlake’s Loblolly House (2006) were constructed in Bensonwood’s factory and assembled on site in just six weeks. Photo by Peter Aaron

Tedd Benson worked with KieranTimberlake on the Loblolly house, and with Lake|Flato on a custom home in New York state.

“Working with Kieran Timberlake and Lake|Flato elevates and inspires us. Their vast experience, high design standards, and attention to architectural detail challenge our team to live up to one of our core credos: Everything Matters,” said Tedd Benson, owner of Bensonwood. “With OpenHome, we aim to make the design and building process easier and faster for the homebuyer, while also achieving a much higher standard of construction and building performance.”
Bensonwood's factory

Bensonwood factory/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I have long been a fan of Bensonwood's technology, and particularly with its practice of Open Building, where they design a home to adapt with time and changes in technologies. Like all of Bensonwood's houses, the OpenHome designs are going to be "built with materials and systems for a low carbon home that conserves water and energy and prioritizes health and wellness."

wall section

Lloyd Alter/ Wall section model/CC BY 2.0

Unlike modular homes, Bensonwood builds panels that are assembled on site. This offers more flexibility in the design and fits on conventional trucks so that transport is cheaper and distances from the factory can be greater. There is more time and work required on site, but especially with the thick walls that Bensonwood builds, you want to avoid the limitations in width that modular construction has to deal with.

Tedd Benson in his material showroom

Tedd Benson with not-so-cheap building components/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The biggest misconception in the modern prefab world was that it would be a lot cheaper than site-built homes, that it would be competitive with manufactured modular homes. It's not, and it all comes down to the materials and systems chosen, the levels of insulation, the quality of the components, and the prioritizing of health and wellness.

Lake Flato’s OpenHome design utilizes a select palette of materials to promote great indoor air quality, environmental health, durability and home owner customization while connecting its inhabitants to the outdoors. Rendering by Lake | Flato

© Lake Flato’s OpenHome design utilizes a select palette of materials to promote great indoor air quality, environmental health, durability and home owner customization while connecting its inhabitants to the outdoors. Rendering by Lake | Flato

It does save time, it should save design fees, but quality is never cheap. At least with Bensonwood's OpenBuilt tech, it will last for generations. Currently they estimate that it will cost about $400 PSF, but that may change; as Tedd notes,

We recognize the OpenHome standards are currently a luxury that we aren’t able to bring to everyone, but through this process, we intend to achieve an economy of scale that will start to tip the benefits of better building quality to every homeowner.

Matching great architects (which both KieranTimberlake and Lake|Flato are) with great builders can yield wonderful buildings. I pulled it off just once and it won the Governor-General's Award for Architecture, Canada's top award. I suspect that we are going to see great award-winning things from OpenHome.