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On the continuum of American culture, prefab housing falls somewhere between Tonya Harding and pork rinds. Acceptable for trailer park denizens, maybe, but not for serious connoisseurs of real estate.

People such as Karim Rashid beg to differ. The famed industrial designer recently invented his own version of a home-in-a-box – Kit 24 – and is one of many “tastemakers” bringing prefab design to the masses. His vision of factory-made living has 24 side panels, two storeys, 1,800 sq ft, and looks like a landing pod created by extremely chic (and colour-conscious) Martians.

In other words: not your father’s mobile home. And Rashid is not alone in transforming this oft-ridiculed segment of the American real estate market.

Prefab design competitions are being held by fashion-forward magazines such as Dwell, and name architects are flocking to participate. And according to figures from the National Modular Housing Council (NMHC), such construction is up by almost a quarter in the past three years.

“Prefab has gone through a big image rebranding,” says Allison Arieff, designer-in-residence at global design firm Ideo and author of the book Prefab. “Everyone used to think prefab was about trailer parks, but a lot of architects have been able to design cool and interesting buildings using prefab technologies. It promises good design at an affordable price.”

It is hardly an American idea, though. The majority of homes in Japan – and, perhaps not surprisingly, IKEA-dominated Sweden – are now modular (or partially assembled in a factory, and installed in concert with a local builder).

The benefits of prefab construction include uniform factory conditions, consistency of skilled labour and speed. Compared with “stick-building”, or traditional on-site construction, prefab can shave many months off a project’s timeline.

“It is just a better way to build,” says Thayer Long, NMHC’s executive director. “Efficiency, quality, cost. There is huge growth potential here.”

The idea certainly appealed to Jane Berentson, editor of Inc. magazine, who signed up Missouri designer Rocio Romero to build a prefab weekend home for her and her husband in an “unfashionable” part of the Catskills. “It’s almost like going through a catalogue and picking out a winter parka,” says Berentson. “Instead of going through the racks, you just say, ‘Oh, that one’s nice, let’s get that one.’ ”

What Berentson got was a two-storey gem, silver-hued with a front of glass from floor to ceiling, perched on the side of a mountain. From Romero’s basic design they added their own elite touches such as bamboo floors, and reduced the number of bedrooms to give it a more open, loft-like feel. And they got it all for much less than a traditional custom-built home designed by a New York City architect, she estimates.

In addition to Romero, other prominent prefab designers in the US include Michelle Kaufmann Designs, Marmol Radziner, Resolution: 4 Architecturee, and Charlie Lazor.

But lest you think prefab is the solution to all your housing problems, IDEO’s Arieff – one of the motors behind the prefab resurgence, as former editor-in-chief of Dwell – is quick to dampen expectations.

The movement’s early hopes, that gorgeous architecture could come at a tiny fraction of traditional costs, have yet to come to full fruition.

“It’s become apparent that prefab is not exactly cheap,” she says. “So we’re not quite there. We’re waiting for one of the larger companies to jump on this, and it hasn’t happened yet.”

You also will not be able to skirt the usual headaches, such as the seeking of local permits and the laying of foundations. Modular designs are not something you just drop on open land, like standard-issue FEMA trailers.

In fact you will still need a traditional builder to partner with the prefab manufacturer and steer the whole process, even though 75 per cent of your home is being factory-made.

But what prefab does allow you is an Architectural Digest-worthy home, with a sleek modernist feel and enviro-friendly construction materials, delivered quickly and costing somewhat less than your typical rambling eyesore.

“Building a house is always a pain,” admits Berentson, whose own Catskills prefab incorporates the feel of a 1950s diner. “But prefab is less painful – and it can also be absolutely beautiful.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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