These Prefabs Don't Move: Studio 804 Houses Languish On Market

studio 804 springfield detail photo

For years, the students of Dan Rockhill's Studio 804 at the University of Kansas School of Architecture, Design & Planning has been turning out stunning modern green prefabs, placing them in challenging areas of Kansas City and selling them fast to modern design devotees who know a bargain when they see it- quality materials and construction, operating costs and great modern design. But Wendy Koch of USA today writes that the two latest homes are stuck on the market without buyers, and that Studio 804 is "essentially bankrupt."


Dan is quoted in USA Today:

"I can't sell this house," he says of their latest project, a three-bedroom, two-bath home begun in January and completed in May. He says the house, currently listed for $190,000, is easily worth twice that amount, given its free student labor and corporate donations...."It's discouraging," Rockhill says, noting that many people "talk the talk" about sustainability but don't want to pay a bit more for it."


While the Springfield House was designed two years ago in a loftier real estate market and is fully loaded, (and is the first LEED Platinum house in Kansas City) the Prescott House (here in TreeHugger) was spec'ed to the market. Studio 804 wrote:

In light of the country's current economic situation, affordability has become a crucial issue in American housing, and thus something we are taking very seriously. In pursuing sustainability, cost is often a prohibiting factor.

So they economized on material selection and size, but invested in making it a Passive House so that operating costs would be negligible. But as we have said so many times on TreeHugger, buyers don't care about that; you don't mortgage your heating bill. Wendy writes:

New homebuyers are increasingly interested in energy-efficient upgrades, but they won't pay much more for them, preferring instead to spend extra bucks on cosmetics items like granite counterops, according to research by the National Association of Home Builders.

Even the economical Prescott Passive House costs more than the usual builders' spec house in the area right now. But one can hope that the exposure Wendy Koch gives it in USA Today will drive some traffic.

UPDATE: Metropolis writes that you can donate to Studio 804 here. They should put up a Paypal link.

More at USA Today, but do avoid the comments. They represent the fundamental problem in green design today, and I have heard every one of them when I was building modern prefab and when I write about it. I will repeat a few lines because this should be addressed:

"Why can't the treehugger crowd get it? Give us something that looks decent, at least costs the same, and actually works and the rest of us will get on board. Until then, stopped forcing "green" on the rest of us!"

"It's discouraging," Rockhill says, noting that many people "talk the talk" about sustainability but don't want to pay a bit more for it."

Typical granola eater remark. Pay a premium for my house because it's green.... If you want everybody to buy green get the price down to a competitive level. Why should I pay extra?

My favourite that shows up every time, from some guy with a plan and a pickup truck:

I could build you a home that not only competes, but out performs any standard production home and is a lot cheaper.

And a new definition of modern design that I do love:

The Left Wing Liberal Socialists Democrats are consumed with how "others should live their lives".....People will not live in some Liberal Spacecraft.

What is Studio 804 competing with? The building code standard insulation, vinyl windows, cheap furnaces and AC, carpeted or vinyl floors, formaldehyde filled particle board, and no design.

What are they offering? Compliance with two of the toughest standards of green and healthy building in the world, LEED Platinum and Passivhaus.

The fact is, you can't build R-50 walls for the same price as R-20. You can't put in a Passivhaus-sized heat recovery ventilator for the price of a bathroom exhaust fan. You can't get rid of vinyl siding and windows and formaldehyde and asphalt shingles without paying more. And even if you could do all of this, you can't build a single house to these standards, compared to the American house production line in a field where it is slapped together by itinerant workers getting paid half of what they did two years ago because the construction industry has collapsed.

And you shouldn't. People deserve healthy, strong houses that will last a long time and tread lightly on the environment. That should be the standard, but it isn't because it will cost more, and "the economy is too fragile to impose tougher standards."

H.L. Mencken wrote that "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public", but a lot of people have by overestimating it, including myself.

Helen Rupell Shell writes in Cheap that "the economics of "cheap" cramps innovation, contributes to the decline of once flourishing industries, and threatens our proud heritage of craftsmanship."

But when it comes to paying for anything, Oscar Wilde would have said that North Americans "know the price of everything and the value of nothing."

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