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Flatpack identikits be gone, as world-leading architects, from Richard Rogers to Daniel Libeskind, create modern modular homes that take prefab living into the 21st century.

In 2002, American modern home magazine Dwell invited 16 architects to come up with a prototype for a modern prefab home for mass production as then Editor-in-Chief Allison Arieff set a challenge to create cost-effective, factory-built homes that rivaled the caché of an architect-built project. The brief – to build a 2,000 square-foot house for a maximum of $200,000 (excluding land, site work and professional costs) – injected a new energy into a market stuck in a rut, akin to Arts & Architecture magazine’s Case Study houses (though not strictly prefabricated, they too answered the challenge to create modern affordable homes that were easy to replicate), and set the standard among contemporary Prefab designs.

The New York-based team Resolution : 4 Architecture took the prize for Modern Modular, a concept created by architects Joseph Tanney and partner Robert Luntz that shifts the traditional focus of mass-production to mass-customization, bridging the gap between prefab and bespoke, architect-built projects.

During the Second World War in the UK, prefabricated structures offered a quick-fix solution to homes destroyed by bombings, while stateside, developer Joseph Eichler heeded the call to create middle-class homes for the post-war housing shortage. However, while Eichler’s homes remain as enduring and inspiring as John Entenza’s Case Study projects, which also gave rise to America’s iconic modernist architecture, the UK’s aluminium B2 and The Universal House gave manufactured, pre-assembled homes a tawdry image that has been hard to shake.

An aesthetic awakening toward the end of the 20th century brought forth a new breed of home owners that were well-versed in design. As Joseph Tanney recalls, “In the late 90s we observed a rise in design consciousness, inspired by Dwell magazine, the first magazine dedicated to modern domestic spaces, as well as Design Within Reach where you could buy contemporary furniture designed by architects, and Target where you could buy a toothbrush designed by Philippe Starck. Our assessment was that domestic spaces were nostalgic at best, they were not really responding to what we thought was an emerging market. We had designed a lot of modern apartments and we found that there were many people interested in a modern domestic space, and typically when you hire an architect, you have to go through the laborious building process. We speculated that if we could provide a relatively affordable option to the modern housing market, that we could tap into a market that we felt no one was addressing at the time. We did research and decided to focus specifically on the modular market. Many architects over the last half a century have tried to design homes that they felt would lend themselves to mass production, but not mass customization.” Tanney believes that R4 : Resolution’s Modern Modular is the solution to cookie-cutter homes that have destroyed the landscape of America’s suburbs, offering affordable housing with unique architectural details.

What is the appeal of these pre-assembled structures that have prompted world-class architects, from Richard Rogers to Daniel Libeskind, to create the architectural equivalent of a diffusion line ? Try lower labor costs and construction fees, more control over budget and schedule and the chance to live in your own starchitect dwelling without the wait, not to mention the environmental advantages.

The manufacture of concrete accounts for approximately 7-10% of global CO2 emissions, so the reduction of brick built structures means less concrete production, as well as the reduction in transport of materials. In 2001, the Kaufmann-Cullen Glidehouse, designed by Michelle Kaufmann and her husband Kevin Cullen, set the standard for sustainable housing. As she notes in Prefab Green, which documents her initiation into the low-impact modular housing market, “Designers and builders need to lead the way and make environmentally friendly design easy and affordable. We need to rethink how we work and how we build and let sustainability be our guide. We must think deeply about our designs but execute and install them simply, without damage to the land.”

As Tanney will attest, it’s hard to define the diverse prefab market, which ranges from young to old and from single dwellers to families, but one theme remains consistent, “Our clients are design savvy and architecturally conscious, as well as pretty well educated. It’s the widest range you can imagine, but the one thing that remains common is that they have a keen visual eye.”

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