The 1% Is About to Meet the Prefab Home

SAN DIEGO ( TheStreet) -- Prefabricated housing doesn't typically inspire images of luxury or the stylish designs of top architects.

Made famous by Sears, Roebuck & Co. , which sold more than 100,000 kit houses during the early 20 th century, mail-order homes (as they were known then) had two primary attributes: They were inexpensive and quick to assemble. 

Those quaint beginnings, however, are about to be eclipsed by a new chapter in prefab homemaking, this one spearheaded by Fred Carl, founder of Viking Range .

With his new venture, C3 Design , Carl has set out to create luxurious, technologically advanced homes that he says will establish a higher standard in prefab that is appropriate for this century.

"The architecture in itself will be great-looking architecture. The materials, the specifications, the features, the amenities will all be luxury quality," says Carl, who has enlisted some of the country's most notable architects to develop home designs for C3.

Among the first with a prefab design for Carl is award-winning David Rockwell (of The Rockwell Group ), best known for designing W Hotels in New York, Paris and Singapore, as well as The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas and Nobu restaurants and hotels around the world.

At the recent Dwell on Design show in Los Angeles, Rockwell unveiled the first of several homes he will design for Carl and C3, called Pinwheel -- a 2,400-square-foot house made up of four rectangular units that pinwheel around a 500-square-foot central courtyard. His design features two bedrooms, a study that can be converted into a third bedroom, two and a half bathrooms and a luxe open kitchen and dining area that includes a 10-foot-long statuary marble kitchen island and professional-grade appliances. 

All of which is a long, long way from Sears & Roebuck catalog homes.

Why even get into prefab homes and take on the challenge of convincing luxury buyers that these are truly luxury properties?

Carl and Rockwell have slightly different answers.

"There's so many advantages over traditional construction. The advantages go on and on -- time, convenience, impact on the environment," Carl says.

Time as an advantage is not all that dissimilar to the prefab home's beginnings with Sears & Roebuck. A typical mail-order precut house with fitted pieces would take only 352 carpenter hours of work, as opposed to 583 hours for a conventional house.

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Carl plans to use advanced manufacturing techniques to further compress the timeframe from design selection to home completion. Just how much he can compress that schedule remains to be seen.

"We would like to think we can dramatically compress the construction cycle and build the typical house, after the foundation, in 25% of the time a house would normally take," says Carl, a fourth-generation homebuilder with 35 years' experience. "These are modular homes. They are almost complete by the time they get to the job site. A lot of the work is already done in factory. We may not meet that goal, but that's our goal."