Michelle Kaufmann Designs Folds Under Terrible Economy

by , 05/27/09

sustainable design, michelle kaufmann, green building, green architecture, prefabricated housing, modular prefab housing

It is with great sadness that we recently learned of the closing of Michelle Kaufmann Designs, one of our favorite green architecture practices and close friends to Inhabitat. The groundbreaking studio blazed the path for green building and was in large part responsible for linking modern, modular prefabricated housing with sustainability. Having interviewed Michelle and followed her growing practice over the past five years the news comes as a great blow and we’re really sorry to see them go!

sustainable design, michelle kaufmann, green building, green architecture, prefabricated housing, modular prefab housing

On her blog, Michelle writes: “Despite our best efforts, the financial meltdown and plunging home values have caught up with us. The recent closing of a factory partner as well as the gridlocked lending faced by homeowners, has proved more than our small company can bear.” Michelle Kaufmann‘s pioneering green prefab practice will be sorely missed, and we wish her the best as she continues to carry on the dream for better designed homes and more sustainable communities.

+ Michelle Kaufmann’s Blog

+ Michelle Kaufmann Designs

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  1. john w. June 7, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    Prefabrication of full, sectional modular units is practical when economy of scale is in play. I can’t imagine anyone actually believing that singular, factory-built one-off homes would be somehow ‘cheaper’ than conventional stick built construction. How could it possibly be cheaper? Consider the transport cost, crane hire and setting crew, and single modular homes simply don’t fit within any reasonable budget. I love the prefabricated sectional modular (wood or metal) project delivery method, but to survive the focus MUST be on scalability of modules and full units, and economy of scale.

    Kaufmann is quoted in the LA Times story lamenting the difficulty of long factory start-up times for manufacturing plants, and most importantly the recognition of a more appropriate target market for sectional modular prefabrication. That target market is multi-unit residential in many forms, including obviously apartment buildings but also cottage courts and cohousing communities. Pocket communities and more compact developments are very amenable to the modular delivery method, and it is really this direction that prefabricated residential architecture needs to be demonstrating its unparalleled economy. The Dwell Magazine vacation home for hipsters was never a sustainable market, and was rather like trying to use a screwdriver to hammer a nail – wrong tool for the job. This blog, Treehugger, and the other green gadget blogs have long abetted this ill-suited to prefab approach rekindled by Dwell several years ago are partially to blame for the marginalization of what should be residential delivery method with a healthy market share. Instead, it’s too often seen as the playground of the wealthy hipster. Prefabricated architecture should be the champion of the affordable home, and I’m not talking about Operation Breakthrough. Let’s just hope that those with influence, like Kaufmann, will help steer prefab housing in the direction it needs to go to best serve a society

  2. lustron June 2, 2009 at 1:10 am

    the prefab road is littered through history with corpses more talented and smart than MK – this is a failure of concept – let’s face facts- an adequate house that they couldn’t make work in the market-even with their skillful marketing machine in place- blame placed on lenders is nonsense and hopefully everyone can see through their excuses- a nicely packaged pig is still a pig- the real innovators need to step up and solve these problems and leave the egomaniacs to go back and work on museums.

  3. The Revolution Corporation May 30, 2009 at 4:22 am

    It\’s just evolution…
    There really was not a lot of cutting edge technology in the MKD homes, and as everyone has noted, the homes were far from affordable. MKD just missed the boat. Systems built homes are supposed to be more efficient in every way, and that includes *cost* to the end user. I was impressed with the whole house LED lighting system they attempted to use, but the other stuff was pretty standard and not really worthy of all the press they got.

  4. modguy May 29, 2009 at 10:45 am

    As a person in the factory building industry, I can say that many of the people in her organization were very impressed with their PR and were difficult to work with. Factory building can be less expensive and it is scalable…you need two way cooperation to make it work however. The designer can’t simply dictate to the factory, it is a give and take.

    there are other companies out there that are doing the same thing at significantly less cost…..but then they go to the factory and ask how do we work together.

  5. DanJ May 27, 2009 at 11:21 pm

    Heartbreaking news. Kaufmann did so much for the industry, and had some really great designs.

    As with any industry, creating something new and generally better will be more expensive, and while Kaufmann, and all prefab homes, were more expensive now, there is no doubt that the process and technology would lead to a cheaper better product once it got to scale. It is a real shame that the economy hit at such a time in the beginning of this company that it did not have the chance to reach that scale, and really become mainstream.

    I hope other companies are able to keep up with the economy and move out housing industry to a better place.

  6. blue72 May 27, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    I for one…couldn’t afford to buy an MK design….. They were one of the first I was interested in…..I guess its a matter of where you live and what housing costs your used to paying for…. I can hire an architect and build and original…for way less… I still like her designs very much. But I think the vast majority of people…can’t afford them. I always thought that PreFabs should trim costs…. I find most want exorbitant prices…. Nonetheless I hate to hear that they are closing up….

  7. blue72 May 27, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    Its a shame…Her designs are very nice…..but I still found them to be cost prohibitive…. PreFab has an identiy crises in my opinion. Pre-Fabricated homes were supposed to be cheaper alternatives…in my particular case they were always double what I could build a home for myself.

  8. theauthor May 27, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Sad, but somewhat inevitable. I think they priced themselves out of the market even before the real estate bust. I don’t know many people who would pay ~$275 per sqft for a prefab home when they could most likely stick-build the same home for significantly less. I’ve found that many architects, particularly modern architects, have a hard time sacrificing, or even compromising, vison for practicality.

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