The Real Deal New York

Modern prefab comes to NY

West Coast phenomenon adapts to fit the city — but in a limited fashion
By Jen Benepe | June 02, 2008 03:29PM

Prefabricated homes, a largely West Coast phenomenon, are popping up in the New York City area for the first time.

Led by Resolution: 4 Architecture (RES4), a New York City-based firm building the “Bronx Box,” and Rocio Romero, who built a home in Gallatin, N.Y., modern prefab is stirring interest among price- and eco-conscious consumers.

Still, the number of prefabs is few, and the obstacles to their widespread adoption are many.

In Eastchester Bay, RES4 just completed site preparation for a two-story, 1,824-square-foot building that will be “the area’s first modern interpretation of a single- family home,” predicted Joseph Tanney, architect and partner at the company.

A rendering shows a house that could well be the shore version of a well-tailored, multi-level rectangular ship, with sleek stainless steel cables and cedar posts, Ipe decks (an ecologically responsible wood that was used to build the Brooklyn Bridge) and rectangular areas jutting out into open space.

The home will boast a roof deck, solar panels, pre-installed floors and pre-built cabinets. The components of the home will be delivered to the site in panels that have already been assembled and sheetrocked. The entire house will then be wrapped in recyclable cement board, said Tanney.

The house has a pre-installed, 2-by-40-foot “pocket” running alongside one wall that will serve as the home’s cabinets, closets and storage area. The property will also have steps running down to the waterfront.

Tanney, who spent a college summer living on a boat, said the efficiencies of the built-in designs aboard that vessel influenced some of his modular concepts.

However, as with all construction in New York, the permitting process was more
complicated than it would be in a more rural location. Also, the home had to meet Federal Emergency Management Agency specs because it lay in a flood plain.

The home, which will have a 52-by-16-foot footprint on a 24-by-90-foot lot, will stand out among the neighborhood’s “unique, quaint and vernacular homes,” said Tanney.

The prefab will cost about $280 per square foot, not including solar panels, and was expected to be completed by late last month, when it was to become home to a couple and their teenage son. RES4’s prices usually average $250 a square foot, plus an additional 15 percent design fee, site scoping and extras, such as site preparation and sometimes foundation-laying.

RES4 also has homes in the design phase in Williamsburg and Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn; homes in construction in East Hampton and on Peconic Bay on Long Island; and completed homes in Lido Beach, Fire Island and Wainscott, as well as several upstate locations. Overall, the firm has completed 25 homes, the most homes in the Northeast of any of the handful of modernist prefab companies.

That’s partly because there have only been about 100 projects completed nationwide by prefab architects since 2002, when Dwell magazine sponsored a competition for architects to design a modernist prefab home. (RES4 architects won the competition, and its design was built in North Carolina.)

Allison Arieff, the former editor of Dwell who co-authored the book “PreFab” with Brian Burkhart, noted that the idea of prefab took off in the construction of schools and other commercial buildings in the 1950s, more in an attempt to increase builders’ return on investment than to deliver high design to the masses.

And one difficulty with prefabs has been buyers’ desire for customization.

Rocio Romero, a young architect based in Missouri, provides a house kit, which is basically a shell, for as low as $37,825. Her price does not include site scoping, contractor fees, sheetrocking, painting of walls, windows and doors, or appliances.

Yet the owner of Romero’s latest New York State home paid $230 a square foot for the entire construction, over Romero’s initial estimates of $120 to $190 per square foot, an overage that had much to do with an oversize master bathroom and floor-to-ceiling glass doors throughout the house.

Romero recently offered a tour of her house to the public; four busloads of people paying $40 a head attended. The house, situated just off a well-traveled road and on the edge of a cliff, was rectangular and simple, with a tongue-in-groove cedar exterior — a first for Romero, who normally uses galvanized steel siding.

The side facing the road has small, high windows, but the side facing the cliff and trees is constructed almost entirely with floor-to-ceiling glass doors. The living room is spacious, with a fireplace and an open kitchen area, but because the owner retrofitted the design, an LVL — Romero’s largest unit — to create a large master bath, the three bedrooms seemed too small to be practical, and one could well wonder what the place would look like once it was furnished.

Typically, the LVL is 1,453 square feet, 25 feet by 59.5 feet, and has a combined living room, dining room and kitchen, three bedrooms, two bathrooms and closets, but the builder can eliminate a bedroom in order to provide more space for the remaining two.

Still, both the RES4 and Romero homes are freestanding — not an easy solution to adapt to New York City, where the exterior walls of neighboring buildings are usually built without a space in between them.

Prefabs that could be built wall-to-wall require steel frames. Jennifer Siegel, a southern California architect, said that her building designs, shipped with doorknobs, windows and appliances, would work for urban infill. The costs, said Siegel, average $280 per square foot, including installation and transport.

Leo Marmol, partner and architect at Marmol-Radziner, a California-based firm, said his firm can also build wall-to-wall because its designs incorporate steel support structures.

However, the prices on some of these homes are enough to cause sticker shock. Marmol-Radziner’s use of steel allows it to build with floor-to-ceiling glass and earned the firm an American Architecture award in 2007 for its stunning glass Desert House in Desert Hot Springs, Calif.

The home is currently on the market for $1.495 million.

One Response to “Modern prefab comes to NY”

  1. July 21, 2014 at 5:23 am, The New Prefab Home-Makers | said:

    […] 4 Architecture. The firm has built about 120 prefab houses over the past decade, from a “Bronx Box” to a Venice beach house. Usual price range: $250 to $350 per square foot. But the firm has built […]