Thursday, June 27, 2019
Some assembly required (story audio)


Some assembly required

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Alchemy Architects is one of a handful of architecture firms across the United States leading the way in developing more cost efficient modern architecture. (Image courtesy of Walker Art Center)
American consumers are used to having a lot of choices when it comes to shopping. They can customize their cars, their computers and their stereos to suit their own needs. But what about houses? Very few people can afford to design their own home. An exhibit currently at the Walker Art Center looks at recent trends in contemporary prefabricated architecture. Prefab architects say they can make artfully designed homes more accessible to the general public.

St. Paul, Minn. — The average American home has had very little input from an architect. Builders put down tract homes and cookie-cutter mansions on plots of land with little thought to the direction of the sun or the wind, or how the building fits into the surrounding landscape. Architectural consultant Michael Sylvester says those are the details an architect would take into consideration.

"We've evolved this funny system where the elites of society can retain an architect as a patron would retain an artist to come up with unique trophy homes," says Sylvester. "For the everyday person the relevance of an architect in their life is up there with a philosopher or a poet; you've heard of them and you know what they do but do you interact with them on a daily basis? Maybe not."

Sylvester says prefabrication may be the answer. It allows homebuyers the opportunity to enlist the talents of an architect without paying full price. Sylvester is the creator of, a Web site clearinghouse on modern prefab architecture. He says prefabrication offers architects the ability to turn their design skills into a product. They can create models that are flexible, and can be played with to meet the needs of individual clients without having to start back at the drawing board each time.

It's this notion of incorporating modern design into everyday architecture that intrigued the Walker Art Center and prompted it to organize an exhibition titled "Some Assembly Required." The day of the opening, the exhibit is living up to it's name. Workers are racing against the clock to build a one story house inside the gallery before the opening reception. It's a simple box, with lots of windows and a compact living space. It's airy and modern with clean lines.

Curator Andrew Blauvelt is overseeing the installation. He says while many people might not be familiar with the concept of prefab architecture, they're actually surrounded by it.

"Like a lot of the so-called McMansions," says Blauvelt. "A lot of those are actually built with prefabricated components. They just don't look like it because there's a lot of icing put on the cake to cover over the seams."

Blauvelt says every kind of housing being built today incorporates some elements of prefabrication - ready to install windows, cabinets, or doors. But prefab architecture takes the concept to the next level. Some houses arrive in kits that can be assembled by the owner. Others are delivered already assembled, and just placed on the land. Blauvelt says the Walker exhibit profiles architects who are using the tools of prefabrication to make sophisticated modern design more accessible to the public.

Professor Tom Fisher, the dean of architecture and landscape architecture at the University of Minnesota, says architects have been experimenting with prefab design for the past century. He says there's a place for prefab in the housing market.

"Behind the whole prefabrication movement," says Fisher, "is a larger movement about how do we use materials more wisely, waste less space, waste less land, bring housing within reach of ordinary people, and still have it be aesthetically pleasing."

Fisher says people are embracing modern design more than ever, whether it's the teapot or toaster they buy at Target, or the chairs they pick up at Ikea. It's only natural for them to want to see better design in their home.

Charlie Lazor, of Lazor Office in the Minneapolis, is one of the local architects featured in the Walker exhibit. To celebrate the exhibit, Lazor invited visiting architects to his home in the Kenwood neighborhood. It's the test model for a line of houses he calls FlatPak.

The house is made up of two boxes, one big and one small. The party is happening in the downstairs of the larger box, where crowds mingle in a single open room that contains the living, cooking and dining areas. The smaller box, across the way, serves as a sort of cabin retreat with a library and a piano, enclosed in glass walls. It's the only prefab house Lazor's built so far, but he has orders for several across the country he plans to fill in the coming year.

One of Lazor's guests is New York architect Joseph Tanney. His work is also in the Walker exhibit. He says he sees prefab architecture as not just a means to create more business for himself, but a way to change how we live.

"It's an opportunity for us to get involved in the design of more domestic spaces in America," says Tanney. "It's an opportunity to literally transform the aesthetic, domestic, suburban landscape of America."

At the Walker exhibit opening, the house is finished and people are milling through the gallery, sitting in the living room chairs, leaning on the kitchen counter, or looking at photos and models of other prefab houses. Visitor Angela Sprunger grew up on the east coast, and has always loved the look of old houses. But over the years she's become increasingly fascinated by modern prefab design. "Prefab interests me in its modern aesthetics but also in its newness," says Sprunger. "I want to be a homeowner someday and low-maintenance and not inheriting the problems of an older house is important to me as a single person. Also size, being able to have a really small unit."

While most homes today are built with a four person family in mind, prefab houses can be designed for one or two people. But Professor Tom Fisher says the homebuilding industry has become comfortable selling oversized inefficient houses and is reluctant to pare itself down.

"So many homebuilders put up such wasteful buildings," says Fisher. "I mean the waste of space and cubic volume in so much of what's getting put on the marketplace is just amazing. And yet we have a country that's got sticker shock and needs more affordable housing, so we can't keep doing what we're doing, which is just wasting land, wasting material and wasting space."

But Fisher says builders will change their ways only when the market forces them to. Until then Prefab architecture will be inaccessible to the masses. A typical prefab house costs approximately $200,000 for 1,500 square feet. That doesn't include shipping, assembly or land. For now prefab architecture caters only to a sophisticated, design-hungry upper-class. For everyone else, there's the Walker Art Center exhibit.