Beyond the Trailer Park -
 Designer Pre-Fab
by Lynn Becker

A new exhibition asks whether top designers can rescue manufactured housing from the public's disdain.

(Originally published in slightly different  form under the title "Pod Sweet Pod" in the Chicago Reader, March 4, 2005


Beyond the Trailer Park

    Sears Catalogue Homes
    Designer Pre-Fab
    Out of the Box - Design
     Innovations In
     Manufactured Housing
     at the Field Museum
     (illustrations, in abundance)


The spirit of the Sears kit home lives on today, in reduced and fairly pricey scale, at Target where, along with the architect's tea kettles and can openers, the discount retailer sells Michael Graves Pavilions, prefabricated modules that add a breakfast nook or dining room to an existing house; the largest maxes out at 215 square feet and costs upwards of $33,000.

The era of low interest rates hasn't been kind to the manufactured-housing industry. While it's meant that the home ownership rate has risen to 69.2 percent - the highest level since the Census Bureau began tracking the indicator in 1965 - it's also made site-built housing, traditionally perceived as more attractive, available to buyers who might otherwise not have been able to afford it. From 1997 to 2003, shipments of manufactured homes dropped by more than half, from 354,000 to 170,000 units, according to the Freedonia Group, a market research firm. Freedonia research also shows that in 2002, the mobile home still accounted for 65 percent of all manufactured housing in the US, and it anticipates other types of prefab housing to remain essentially flat.

But in recent years a boutique subset of the manufactured-housing industry has emerged, deploying edgy design to appeal to more upscale buyers. Flatpak, a prefab house system created by architect Charlie Lazor, allows buyers to customize not only floor-plan configurations but also mix and match different textures and colors of wood, metal, glass, and concrete to create visually distinctive exteriors. Lazor has said his goal is to make not just housing but design affordable, but a Flatpak home isn't cheap: building a 2,500-square-foot Flatpak house runs $360,000, exclusive of a 10 percent design fee, the cost of land, and any additional costs compliance with local building codes may entail.

Loftcube, created by German architect Werner Aisslinger, is another high-end designer prefab home, more affordable because it's dramatically smaller. A raised, white-framed, bevel-edged cube, the unit has a retro, space-age style that might best be described as early Jetsons. The unit offers 360-degree views, and the completely open plan extends to the exposed shower, which is reduced to one small wall segment housing the pipes and showerhead. The Loftcube, according to its Web site, is designed to be helicoptered or craned onto the "endless flat tops of the postwar high-rises." The first 2.5-ton, 388-square-foot prototype was assembled on a Berlin rooftop in 2003. The cost is 55,000 euros (approximately $72,000). Aisslinger claims to have received thousands of inquiries. Partnered with Corian/DuPont, which bankrolled the Loftcube's development, Aisslinger has announced he's going into full production mode, with first unit scheduled to ship by April.

In 2002 Dwell magazine, a glossy journal of hip home design, declared prefab housing "a terrific -- Resolution 4 Architecture Dwell Homeand feasible option for home building in the 21st century," and set out to prove it with a competition to create the Dwell Home, a $175,000 prefab house that would showcase the "aesthetic, environmental, economic, technologic” potential of prefab housing. Sixteen architects participated, and in May 2003 the New York firm Resolution: 4 Architecture was named the winner. Its entry, Modern Modular, combined traditional wood framing with high-tech modular design; the 2,042-square-foot, three-bedroom, 2.5-bath house was delivered to its owners in Pittsboro, North Carolina last April and was finished by July. You can s
ee mini-movies of resolution:4 architectures's assembly of it's mountain retreat modular housing here:
   1.   2.   3.

The benefits of designs like these may eventually trickle down to the broader market, but they currently bear the stamp of playthings for the affluent. The real-world potential for manufactured housing is in alleviating the increasing shortage of affordable housing in cities like Chicago, where, between November 2003 and November 2004 the median price of a single-family home increased 10.2 percent, to $246,000, and gentrification continues apace. According to listings in the Chicago Tribune, North Center, not long ago a solidly working-class neighborhood, is now the priciest residential community in the city: the median home value there last October was almost half a million dollars.

That's well outside of "affordable" as the city defines it: within reach of a family of four with a household income of up $75,000 a year for a purchased home (which translates to houses between $150,000-$200,000), or $45,250 a year for rentals (between $600-$900 a month). The politics of affordable housing is reflected in the ongoing debate between Mayor Daley and Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle. The current ordinance, approved by Daley and enacted in April 2003, mandates that 10 percent of units in city-subsidized developments be set aside for affordable housing; Preckwinkle's more aggressive proposal would require 15 percent of units in all developments be made available to lower income families. Both plans leave it to developers to figure out how to create affordable units that don't turn off full-price buyers or stigmatize lower-income residents, but don't address how technology can help the process. Which brings us to Design Innovations.

Next: Design Innovations in Manufactured Housing at the Field Museum

Introduction - Sears Catalogue Homes


© Copyright 2005 - Photos and text by Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

  Design Innovations in
    Manufactured Housing
    at the Field Museum

  --Exhibition Architects --
  Ali Tayar
  david baker + partners
  Bryan Bell - Design Corps
  David Khouri
  Estudio Teddy Cruz
  Garofalo Architects
  Sumo Architects
  Taylor & Burns architects

  American Planning Association
     Affordable Housing Reader

  City of Chicago Five Year
     Affordable Housing Plan

  Dwell Home
  FLATPAK House  
  Loftcube Project  
  Manufactured Housing Institute
   Michael Graves & Associates  
  Michael Graves Pavilions  
  Resolution 4: Architecture
  Sears Archives- Sears
     Model Homes

  Sears Catalogue Homes on
     Old House Web
  Sears Catalogue Homes in
     Downers Grove
  Sears Catalogue Homes on
     The Arts & Craft
     Society website

   Shipping Container Prefab
  The Houses that Sears Built,
     by Rosemary Thornton

  Tumbleweed Tiny House Co.