House In a Box

Long before prefab became the buzz of modernist architecture, Whitney Sander was realizing the sort of savings that today’s prefab producers dream about.

Using century-old technology more often seen in industrial buildings, Sander delivers glass-and-steel showpieces (with 30-foot ceilings, no less) for around $150 a square foot. That’s half the price of traditional site-built construction in L.A.

Sander calls his hybrid houses “part prefab, all custom,” because the only cookie cutter involved is the machine that extrudes rolled steel for the house’s skeleton. But that steel can be factory-cut into a wealth of shapes, sizes, and curves, giving Sander the freedom to design each home individually. The pieces are bolted together like an erector set, so framing takes three weeks, compared with three months for site-built construction. Once the shell is complete, inside walls and the rest of the house are built traditionally.

This building process has been used since 1901 for sheds and warehouses, but few architects have applied it to residential construction. Sander, meanwhile, has built five hybrid houses since 1989, with three more in the works. Bonus benefit: The steel is 80% recycled.

“I wanted the greenest house I could get, but I had no money,” says Thomas Aujero Small, a music critic. Sander is building Small and his wife a 3,000-square-foot home, with environmental upgrades, high ceilings, and an open floor plan that will let them stage chamber concerts in their living room. “You just don’t see 30-foot ceilings in most prefab houses,” Sander says. “Not for $400,000.”