St. Louis Public Radio News
Fri January 23, 2009
Prefab home designer bucks a downward trend
By Matt Sepic, KWMU
Perryville, Mo. – It's not often that the terms "prefabricated home" and "modern architecture" are heard together. But a young architect in Missouri has spent a decade figuring out how to bring low prices to the realm of high design.
And Rocio Romero's homes with their corrugated metal walls, huge windows and strong horizontal lines are selling despite a dismal housing market.
One of her sleek designs near Perryville, Mo., about an hour's drive from St. Louis, sits in sharp contrast to the neighboring hog barn. Step inside, though, and the grassy rural landscape rolls into a bright, uncluttered interior. All the open space makes the home feel much larger than its 1,200 square feet.
The two-bedroom, two-bath model, called the LV, is the standard house by Romero's company. But what's not immediately obvious is that much of the house was flat-packed, like so much IKEA furniture, and trucked here.
Romero says that building her way puts the architect in full control.
"Fabricating my components enables me to ensure that every customer is going to get the home the way that I had envisioned it," she said.
In home design, "modern" usually means expensive. But Romero says constructing the wall panels and other big pieces offsite saves money without sacrificing quality. Her LV house costs about the same or even less per square foot than a normal stick-built home.
New York Times design columnist Allison Arieff says it's still plenty stylish.
"It's really simple. It's really clean," Arieff noted. "And so I think what Rocio's done is create a design that's sophisticated, but it's certainly not overdone."
Architects such as Buckminster Fuller and Frank Lloyd Wright saw the benefits of prefab decades ago, but their ideas never caught on. After World War II, a company called Lustron even tried manufacturing steel houses for returning GIs by repurposing idled war factories.
For years, only doublewide mobile-home manufacturers were able to find a viable business model for prefab houses. Now, Romero may have done just that. She has about 40 active projects and hasn't had to lay off any workers even in a dismal housing market.
Her Web site caught the eye of Ethan Whitehill of Kansas City, who just built a vacation home in Arkansas. Whitehill says he didn't want to spend a lot of money, but he didn't want a log cabin, either.
"When you're inside, the walls just fall away and you just focus on what's outside," he said.
Some builders like Romero's concept, too. Matthew King has erected two Romero homes in upstate New York. He says having the home's major exterior components shipped on a single flatbed simplifies construction.
"My brother and I are able to put it up by ourselves in about two weeks," King said. "But after that, it's pretty much like building out any house. It's all custom from there on out."
Both of the houses King assembled were for people who wanted inexpensive second homes. Arieff of the Times says that, for now, modern prefab will likely remain a niche market.
"While its fan base is growing, the concept of manufactured housing can still be offputting, reminding many people of FEMA's formaldehyde trailers," Arieff said.
But even if Romero's prefabs don't become the next Levittown, her concepts of efficiency and quality may catch on in a struggling housing industry desperate for innovation.