Eco Homes: Prefab and Fabulous

For most people, the word “prefab” conjures up images of trailer parks, grim industrial complexes, or sprawling suburban tracts. But among certain forward-thinking, ecologically conscious folks with an inclination for contemporary design, pre-fabricated modular housing is fast becoming the hottest thing around.

For artists Ellen Rockne and Brian Andreas and their sons Matthew and Gabe, Midwestern transplants who’ve been living in a rental home in Santa Barbara for the past three years, a stylish, factory-built home seemed perfect. Shortly after arriving in town, the family bought a small, one-story house on the upper Eastside. “At first we hoped to renovate, but every builder we met said it was a teardown,” Brian said. In the meantime, Ellen had discovered the work of Bay Area architect Michelle Kaufmann, and was drawn to the postmodernist design, open floor plans, and emphasis on indoor/outdoor living of Kaufmann’s modular housing. “We knew one of Michelle Kaufmann’s Sunset Breezehouses had been set up as a model house in Palo Alto,” Ellen said. “We went up there to see it, walked inside, and said, ‘This is it.’” The Sunset Breezehouse, designed in alliance with Sunset Magazine and featured in the Smithsonian, features a large, central breezeway, solar panels, and nontoxic and renewable materials, including a corrugated Cor-Ten steel exterior that will oxidize to a deep terracotta color, and ipe Brazilian hardwood accents.

Two weeks ago, accompanied by police escort and flashing lights, five separate units arrived on trucks from Los Angeles to be lifted by crane, guided over a historic sandstone wall, and placed gently on the foundations. The spectacle drew a few neighbors, and film cameras from PBS and the Discovery Channel were on the scene to record the event.

One of the greatest advantages of prefab housing is the elimination of the lengthy construction process: from start to finish, setting the house-a four-bedroom home of 3,100 square feet-and completing the decking will take six weeks.

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