Fast Company

Can Green Homes be Mass Produced?

The Fast Interview: Architect Michelle Kaufmann on finding an alternative to endless subdivisions of McMansions.

Michelle Kaufmann wants to take green living into mass production. Kaufmann is part of a new generation of architects who are elevating modular homes into icons of good design and environmentalism. Her quest was borne from a frustrating personal experience. Kaufmann previously worked as an associate for architect Frank Gehry. After moving to the Bay Area near San Francisco, she and her husband searched for homes and found little that met their needs. The options were $600,000 tear downs ("which we could almost afford but then couldn't afford to do anything after we tore the house down") or subdivision mini-mansions ("which we just couldn't bring ourselves to do"). So they decided to build for themselves. They bought land in Marin County and designed their own home for simplicity and sustainability. In, 2002, she founded her own firm, Michelle Kaufmann Designs, and took her plans into factory production. Her firm now offers several options: the Glidehouse (based on the home she designed for herself), the mkLoft, the mkLotus, the mkSolaire, the Sunset Breezehouse, and custom home designs. Modules are assembled in a factory, arrive on site 90 percent completed and can be assembled with various configurations and finishing options.

How did your own experience looking for a house push you into this field?

All of the work we're doing now started from me not thinking like an architect but thinking like a client. We couldn't find anything we liked we could afford There's this enormous gap between these thoughtless subdivisions, these McMansions designed by developers, and the beautiful homes designed by architects -- and nothing in between.

Do home buyers want more green options than the market is providing?

Absolutely. People do want to go green. They want lower energy bills and healthy environments for their families. It's a no- brainer, but there are not many solutions out there. Green still seems like it has a price premium and it's only for people who can afford it. It's kind of like organic food movement. Ten or 15 years ago organic foods had a significant price premium. But now, as more and more people are demanding organic foods and places like Costco are carrying it, there's just a minimum increase in price for organic.

For the last few decades, the housing industry has been kind of a bigger-is-better arms race: More bathrooms, more square footage, more garage stalls. Is this changing?

I think we're in the middle of a cultural shift. People are wanting more from less, rather than bigger is better. The iPhone is a good example -- it can't just be a phone. It's a camera, Internet, email, our calendar, the way we check the weather. Another example is Smart Water. Once we start wanting more from water, you know we're in the middle of cultural shift.

Thinking of modular homes as showcases for elegant design seems like a pretty big shift.

In every other industry, we've used technology and automation to bring good design to the masses, but we're still building buildings the same ways we have been for hundreds of years. In the USA, we've had this hesitation about embracing offsite technology because of this misconception of all prefab being substandard, like trailer homes. In places like Japan or Australia, if you're building a high end home, you want it built in a factory with precision cutting and quality control.

Is it really possible for something to be both elegant and mass?

We have a number of different designs because we want every home to feel as though it was just meant for that site. If you only had a couple of designs, that would not work because then it would feel like it has nothing to do with the site. Even within those designs, there are a number of ways that they can be put together, and assembled in different materials. We've completed 26 homes and we'll have 50 done by the end of the year, and no two really look alike even though they seem alike in the factory.

How much more affordable are these modular homes?

Accessibility can mean price accessibility and time accessibility. We want to provide both. With the price, because we're starting to increase the volume, it allows us to achieve a lot less waste and lot less time. That translates into financial savings. For me, time accessibility is important as well. If I want to go green, I don't want to have to spend huge amounts of time doing the research to figure out what's really green. It's increasingly fuzzy because people hear all these different messages and different products. We're trying to provide the whole prepackaged green solution. There's a lot of greenwashing going on. Green has become the new black.

Your homes emphasize green features such as living roofs planted with vegetation, lots of windows, bamboo floors, and systems for storing water runoff for irrigation. How much can these homes reduce the environmental footprint of the house?

The only data we have is for our homes like the Glidehouse that I live in. We have a zero energy bill. Our water usage is one third the average person in our neighborhood. We still take hot showers every day, it's just by making smart choices in terms of the fixtures -- on-demand water heater, low-flow shower head, dual flush toilet. We have the data that shows we have 50 to 75 percent less waste in terms of how the home is constructed and built versus the equivalent home built on site. We're able to re-use cut down materials.

You've incorporated some old design principles. You're from Iowa -- have you borrowed from the old fashioned barn?

There is so much to learn from barns. A friend of mine once said it's hard to find a badly designed barn. Barns are designed for function, climate, and trying to find the simplest solutions that maximize the benefits of those things. A lot can be learned from studying barns in terms of cross ventilation and sun shading. Because we have a lot of glass, sun shading is important at different times of the day and different times of the year. Our low tech version, which I love, is putting barn door tracks on the outside of the house and having sliding wood sunshades. They also lock into place so you can have security.

What's it like living in a modular home?

Once it's done, you don't ever know that it was built in a factory. But I would say that what's different about living in a green house is that when we design spaces to really maximize natural light -- a goal with all our homes is to make it so you don't have to turn on lights during the day -- or when we design for cross ventilation, the space also feels good.

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