May 28, 2012
Prefabricated Green Home Designs Capture The Imagination
It’s a sad thing. Michelle Kaufmann, the princess of building green, über-contemporary, modular homes is in Fiji, struggling with a slow Internet connection and losing her Wi-Fi access because it’s starting to rain. Then she apologies before signing off with an “xo.” Kaufmann ends every email with xo. Is it some code? Or is the girl who was born in Iowa, excelled at Princeton, was once a colleague of architect Frank Gehry and then set the architectural world buzzing in 2003 with a simple, very smart home on a narrow lot in California an old-fashioned romantic?
I am going with steely romantic for Kaufmann, who was on the island looking for sunshine and relaxation with her cabinet- and furniture-maker husband, Kevin Cullen. It turns out Cullen’s family also has a tradition of building their own homes. Three years after the collapse of the U.S. housing market buried her modular home business and after she sold her iconic designs to Blu Homes in California, Kaufmann (michellekaufmann.com) is flourishing. She has become a thoughtful voice on the need for green, affordable housing, sounding a call for a massive makeover of the housing industry.
“I am focused on the future of architecture and home designs,” she says in an email. “I am working on individual homes for forward-thinking clients who want to push the boundaries for what a home can be.” Kaufmann is also working with the Cradle to Cradle Institute in California to bring architect William McDonough’s ideas about materials and buildings accessible to everyone. “Although a huge task, I seriously couldn’t imagine a dreamier job,” she says.
Kaufmann’s philosophy and journey to accessible, healthy, modern design is laid out in a personal memoir, Prefab Green, a book she wrote with Catherine Remick in 2009. Prefab Green starts with growing up in Iowa, navigating dirty and congested streets in New York and finding it difficult to breath in smoggy Los Angeles. The young Princeton graduate and her builder husband were living in a mouldy apartment and desperately wanted to buy a house. But not any house. It had to be clean, uncluttered, with low energy bills and an affordable price tag.
When they couldn’t find anything, they bought a lot and she designed the first of her famous MK homes, the Glidehouse. “We designed the house based not just on how it would look, but also on how it would feel,” Kaufmann writes in the book’s introduction. “By installing photovoltaic [PV] solar panels, the home would have a zero electric bill. We carefully planned the home to use less water, energy and materials. “We designed the home with a series of sliding glass doors, sliding wood panels and sliding wood sunshades. We not only loved our new home, but it met every single goal we started out with,” Kaufmann writes.
Money was tight, so the two built their three-bedroom home on weekends, using structural insulated panels (SIPS) and a lot of sweat. Friends were impressed and asked them to build a similar home, launching Kaufmann into business. She found a prefab factory willing to give her a chance. Instead of taking 14 months to build a Glidehouse on site, the factory turned out an identical Glidehouse in four months and for 15 per cent less. Sales boomed, the media came calling and Kaufmann turned out a series of designs that captured the imagination.
A full-sized replica of their house was built in the National Building Museum, for the Vancouver Home Show, at the Smithsonian and was featured in hundreds of articles in the New York Times, Sunset Magazine, Dwell magazine and television shows. The Glidehouse was a star. “It struck a chord with others who were in a similar place as Kevin and I, people who wanted a healthy, sustainable home that they could afford,” she says. “It is still home. We have so much emotional connection to it. We designed it together and Kevin built it. Nope, I don’t think, we will ever leave it.”
Modular construction and other prefabrication techniques can be a great means to an end, especially given the reality of harsh winters and the Canadian construction timetable. “If you can use technology to help build indoors all year, then you can increase quality control, improve working conditions, reduce waste, time frames and control costs.” There is a demand for more affordable green homes, she says. “It’s no longer a question of if people want green homes — they do — they want lower energy and lower water bills. They want healthy homes for their families. But it can’t cost more than a non-green home and it can’t take any more time to build and it has to be easy.”