Monday, July 27, 2009

Pre-fab Architecture is Dead? We Don't Think So...

Apparently, there is a growing opinion that pre-fabricated architecture is dead. To the heap of recent pile-ons for this form of design, once heralded by modernists as the next generation of housing in America, you can add: "bad business," "cliche," and "over-designed" for common consumption in the United States.

This excellent blog article by Build LLC stakes out the "death" case well from their practical point of view: Pre-fab Houses Don't Work. After reading, be sure to subscribe to their RSS; they write good stuff.

Theirs is a provocative, intelligent piece supporting the idea that pre-fab is dead. Most of the arguements are well-written, but thankfully easily countered (as done by reader Brian of Method Homes in the comments). We're going to take a bigger-picture approach to the arguement to further discussion.

So, what of it? Is modernist pre-fab over-designed, cliche, bad business, or just plain dead? On one (small) hand, we think yes (see qualifier below), but on the other hand, decidedly no.


  1. While pre-fab is at its heart a process (not dead), we think modernist pre-fab also brings baggage of aesthetic (dead) into the discussion. We will address both.
  2. Also, we are including shipping container architecture in the pre-fab arguement, because it is relevant to a project [1016] Architecture is working on right now.

On the count of over-designed: GUILTY

Let's face it, architects usually over-design. It is a pleasure of the artist-patron relationship that is the reason for our profession. The one-on-one attention and problem solving that is the key to successful residential design is a major hinderance to producing scalable, mass-market solutions. Taking too much time means you have to charge more money to make a profit, which kills the main economic driver of pre-fabricated architecture.

Also, modernist pre-fab misses, or more probably, chooses to ignore, a blatant mass-market fact: Americans, as a whole, do not prefer the modernist aesthetic for their homes. They prefer traditional looking houses. Successful mass market products fill a need, they don't instruct people on how a designer thinks they should live.

On the count of cliche: NOT GUILTY

This is where modernism really gets in the way of success for pre-fabricated architecture. The out-of-the-box, avante garde thinkers that push moderism to new places, like pre-fab and shipping container architecture, are only happy at the edge of the envelope. As soon as the "newness" wears off, it doesn't even really excite them and they are on to different things.

The real problem is countless critics, followers, and media pile on and reinforce the stigma that an idea is no longer worthwhile.

Traditional architecture evolved over hundreds of years, yet still has a place in everyone's heart (except Arch'l Record editors, we'd suppose). The fragmented, haphazard way in which housing is delivered, codified, and regulated in this country will take many years to change

Just when modernism leaves something behind it is good and ready for mass acceptance. The flight of the modernist is mostly driven by the fear of being called cliche because they dare do something that has been published before.

Most people that we tell about our container project have never heard of container or pre-fab architecture at all. How can this be cliche?

On the count of BAD BUSINESS: Adjournment requested

Imagine a tailor on Saville Row cranking out hand-made suits, out of some flaboyant fabrics, in one size, and then wondering why he can't sell (for a profit) to anyone who walks in the shop. Even if he could make them fast enough to sell them cheap (he can't), the design is too intense, they won't fit everyone, and the mass market therefore rejects them.

This is ITB's understanding of the current pre-fab. The pioneers of the business are having a tough go: they over-design, use a production method that doesn't quite have enough efficiencies, and generally push a product that most Americans don't want.

Another example: Twitter. This internet service is all the rage right now. Even though Twitter makes no money whatsoever, no one close to it is really calling it dead. The owners are taking time and investors are risking capital to find the recipe for profitability.

On reports of it's death: GREATLY EXAGGERATED (but fun to read)
In a May 2009 Q&A interview with Dwell, Adam Kalkin (an interesting character, and self-described performance-artist-architect) had this to say about the future of container architecture.

[Currently] the people using containers in building are mostly very
sophisticated clients; they’re not, at this point, for every man. If you were
able to figure out the manufacturing methods and scale them, you could make
containers inexpensive, though right now they’re not.

The end user does not care about the process used to deliver housing. Therefore, the process of pre-fab is alive and ripe for innovation.

We at [1016] Architecture and Inside the Brackets believe that pre-fab has tremendous potential in urban infill architecture settings, with a slightly more traditional aesthetic responsive to its location, and when not pitched to the public as a truly custom solution (i.e. is embraced by for-profit developers).

The benefits of pre-fab (controlled quality, reduced construction schedule, sustainable construction practices, etc.) are undeniable. With time, investment, and tweaks to the way modernist pre-fab is brought to the public, it will be a viable chunk of the residential housing market share.

Join the discussion: comment below.

Inside the Brackets is looking for contributing authors. Contact us if you are interested.

Full text to Build LLC blog post: Pre-fab Houses Don't Work.

Side note: it was through this article that ITB heard Michelle Kaufmann Designs was closing their design shop after previously shedding ownership of a factory to produce their pre-fab designs.

Check out our other posts on Container Architecture.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How to Buy a Chicago “Fixer-Upper.”

A Fixer-Upper, or other distressed property such as foreclosed property, bank-owned property, or REO, can represent a great real estate opportunity, especially in today's market. Of course, the potential is wrapped in risk. If you are an individual interested in this type of real estate investment, [1016] and Inside the Brackets attempt here to take some of the mystery out of tackling a fixer-upper in Chicago.

Some of these items were mentioned in our earlier post: What to Look for When Shopping for a Home in Chicago: From an Architect’s Perspective. This is not an exhaustive post, so feel free to contact us with questions.

Get Financing in Place:
This might seem like it should come later in the process but for several reasons this should be the first step (except for maybe contacting us). Here’s why: Getting pre-approved by a lender (not a broker) ensures you can determine a realistic budget for your project.If the property you find is a bargain, it won’t last long. Being pre-approved will allow you to make your offer more quickly and without financing contingencies. For example, bank owned and foreclosed properties typically require the letter of pre-approval with the offer. If you don’t have one, the property could go under contract while you scramble to get financing lined up.It is smart to shop around for the best lender, and this takes time. Rushing to get an offer put together is not conducive to getting a good loan.Confirm the lender is very experienced with the type of properties you are interested in buying. Confirm that the lender will do purchase and construction loans. If you want to use FHA financing, get the requirements from your lender, and make sure you’re looking at properties that meet them.

Determine the Type of Property You are Looking For:
With thousands of properties on the market it is important to narrow your search criteria as much as possible. When working with a real estate agent, and utilizing the MLS, it’s pretty easy to set up very specific search criteria to narrow down your list. Doing this from the beginning will save you time.

Here are some other things to help you determine which type of property might work for you:
  • Your interests, existing skills, time available, and budget will help narrow your search. For example, decide ahead of time if you want a multi-unit building, number of units, commercial space or all residential, target neighborhoods, price-range, features, zoning (if necessary), condition of the property, etc.
  • Can you perform the rehab work or will you hire contractors?
  • How do you plan to use the property and what is your exit strategy? Will you live in the unit (owner occupied buildings are generally eligible for better financing options)? Will it be all rental? Will you sell it as soon as the repairs are complete?
  • Depending on the deal that you find, your answers to the above could change.

Working with a Realtor® from the beginning of your search can save time and perhaps even money. In addition to MLS searches in realtime, they can provide you with tax searches, property history and other valuable information to evaluate the property. Plus, in Illinois, the seller pays all commissions, so the buyer gets these benefits with no out of pocket expense.

Find a Property and Make an Offer:
Once you determine your target property type, there will be many that meet these general criteria. How to determine which one deserves your offer? How much should you offer? Is the property worth what the seller is asking? Answers to these questions can be determined by property specific due diligence.

The purpose of due diligence is to uncover and quantify things that affect property value. There are always additional “surprises” along the way, but the more you find ahead of closing, the safer your investment becomes. Formalize your due diligence with written charts or spread sheets.
Formal due diligence will help you compare different properties in an apples-to-apples manner.

Your chart, also called a pro forma, should include all hard cost and soft cost estimates, purchase price, expected rent, expected price when you sell, etc. This will help you understand the value of the property and what the monthly cash flow will look like.

Here are some other top tips for this phase of buying a Chicago fixer-upper:
  • Have a contractor on your team to help you get a handle on potential renovation costs BEFORE you offer.
  • Don’t be afraid to make offers that are below the ask price. It is common to make offers on 5 to 10 different properties before getting one accepted. If your first offer got accepted, it probably means you were offering too much. In most situations, it is okay to offer well below the asking price, especially in this market.
  • If you are confident in your pro forma, the ask price is almost irrelevant. Offer what you want to pay for the property.
  • If the seller is a bank, expect long delays in communication. They might ask you to be ready to close in 15 to 30 days and then not respond to you for two months. Just be patient. There’s no way around it, so utilize the time for additional due diligence before closing.
  • Work with an architect to have any necessary drawings for repair ready for permit before the closing.
  • Interviewing contractors during the closing period can allow construction to start immediately. Because of interest charges, time is expensive in real estate. The sooner you can get the building occupied the better.

Close, Rehab and Move In/Rent
The key to this step is speed, unless you are planning on living in the property. If you are planning on renting your property, market to potential tenants even during renovation/construction. When tenants move in, they pay your mortgage. Until they move in, you are paying it all yourself. Consider using a rental agency to fill your vacant units. They will save you time, which as we said, is money.

Being able to accurately and quickly evaluate the potential of a building is critical to making a good purchase, knowing the required team members and actions to take during closing and renovation are critical to ensuring your purchase becomes a good investment.

[1016] and Jameson can help you with all of the above.

Through our relationship with Jameson Real Estate, we can represent you as a buyers agent (at no cost to you) and [1016] can help you evaluate each property for zoning and code issues that might arise or stand in the way of making the changes you want to make. Through our relationships with highly qualified contractors we can also help you get estimates for the repairs. And finally, if you would like, we can help you navigate the building permit process and execute construction.

If there are any steps you have questions about, or if you would like to discuss searching for a property, please feel free to contact us. We would be happy to discuss the process further or help you start your search. Let Jameson and [1016] make your purchase and renovation an experience that you’ll want to repeat.

For additional information, see this How to Buy, Find, and Renovate a Fixer-Upper by Andrew Wilson, AIA.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

If Robert Stern thinks it a good idea, sign us up.

Last month's issue of New York House Magazine featured an interview with the influential architect Robert A.M. Stern, at his firm Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA). We at Inside the Brackets happened to have been trained at an architecture school that was/is extremely sympathetic to Mr. Stern's traditional approach to architecture, interiors, and urban design.

While not specifically known for "sustainable design," the list of Stern's accomplishments in this arena is nonetheless impressive. For instance, his firm is responsible for the following:

  • the first LEED Platinum business school in the world;

  • the first LEED Platinum speculative and multi-tenant office building;

  • the first LEED-certified museum;

  • the first LEED-certified U.S. General Services Administration courthouse, among many others.
So you can see why when he talks, Inside the Brackets, among others, listen. From the article,

Sustainability is inherent in each project his firm touches. Says Stern:
'We don’t wear it on our sleeves, but it’s there... I don’t think we have any projects on board, nor have we had in a while, that haven’t had sustainability built into the agenda just like structural integrity. It’s a very important part of our practice.'

It is encouraging to know one of the best "traditional" firms is publically approaching sustainability not as an "add on" to a traditional design, but as an integral aspect. Also, it's nice for [1016] Architecture to have something in common with RAMSA.

Read full text here.

Inside the Brackets wasn't familiar with NY House Magazine until the GreenBuildingsNY 2009 Conference. It is a really striking publication: large format, good articles, and great photos. Check it out.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Shipping Containers and Alpacas

Inside the Brackets previously posted about the Midnight Moon Alpaca Ranch project (click here and scroll down). In all probability, MMAR is to be the first alpaca ranch made from shipping containers (ISBUs, to be exact).

[1016] Architecture recently made some good progress on the main house design for the ranch.

  • This design is made of (3) 8' x 40' High Cube (HC) containers, and the owner wants the containers to be visible on the exterior.
  • The decks, stairs, and curved metal roof are all additional parts, but can be disassembled in order to be reused should that become necessary.
  • The building will be sited to take advantage of summer/winter sun angle differences to promote energy savings and daylighting.
  • The result... not your typical midwestern agricultural building, for sure.
Here is an animation of the main house design in progress:

There is still a lot of work to be done before this becomes reality, and eventually Inside the Brackets will bring you updates on the planned barn and guest cottages for the property.

Visit the Midnight Moon Alpaca Ranch site here.