Piece by Piece
Modular dwellings make second-home building a snap
About 12 years ago, Tom Sandonato stood on a hill by his property in Joshua Tree, California, with a gnawing question. He wanted to build a space—a getaway cocoon for him and his wife—without the hassle of hauling machinery up there. A place that would be raised off the ground, impervious to insects and sheltered from rattlesnakes and scorpions and the like.
“I began researching,” says Tom. “I wanted something that looked good. Here I was in the desert, with giant boulders and rocks behind me, the national park spread out this way, and everything I looked at had little windows. I wanted something that had an expanse of glass.”
And so he started KitHaus with that single idea: making beautiful, modernist spaces that are small and comfortable, can be used for anything and constructed on-site—in Arkansas, Hawaii, anywhere in the U.S.—within a short amount of time.
It’s a simple idea, really—one that’s not too far off from how we assemble furniture from stores like Ikea. A “kit house” is delivered in uniformly made parts that, when locked together puzzle-piece-like, form a dwelling. It may seem like a very modern-day concept, but prefab homes have been around for quite some time. Even Frank Lloyd Wright dipped his toes in the movement back in the early part of the 20th century, crafting modular houses using precut, factory-made lumber. Despite the interest, the concept never really took off. But within the last decade or so, more and more companies have been recycling the concept, coming up with a new definition while trying to understand the needs of homeowners.
Sandwiched between a row of warehouses in Sun Valley, California, for the past 12 years, KitHaus has been doing just that. When Tom and senior designer, Will Zemba, give me a tour of the warehouse, there are five already-assembled units sitting in what feels like million-degree California heat. It’s immediately obvious that these homes are based on the same design, but something is different. One’s a little longer with a small-but-perfectly-adequate bathroom attached to the main living area. One has brown-and-yellow floral wallpaper. The exterior of the module at the far end is a cool mint green. (Tom later tells me they’re for an Airbnb promotion.) If I were ever concerned about these kit houses lacking character, my hesitations are now gone.
Tom steps on the elevated wooden floor of module K4. (KitHaus’ pre-engineered units range from K3 to K6, each module named the number of ceiling panels it’s made with. Custom units can consist of more panels—they’re currently working on a K9.) Looking through the 191-square-foot module’s floor-to-ceiling glass doors, it’s not hard to understand the appeal. A place like this would be well-suited to any kind of nature-bound setting—tucked away in the middle of a meadow, carved into a hillside, resting by a lavish view of a lake or nestled in a leafy backyard garden. Point is, KitHaus’ dwellings are meant to blur the lines between a shelter and its surroundings, what’s in and what’s out.
By scanning the photographs of modules and previously built homes, just like the ones I’m looking at right now, customers know exactly what they’re going to get. “We have our models, and customers decide on which model they want. And then small parts of that are customizable, like window locations, which doors slide, et cetera,” says Will. The company can also vary the height of the glass, going from 8-foot (the standard) up to 10-foot walls. The modules are made so that two or even three units can be combined to create a larger space. Precut everything means wasting nothing. How very California, I think. But also, how very environmentally conscious. And then I wonder, How difficult is it to put together?
Tom and Will almost simultaneously say: “It’s not easy.” Tom continues to explain: “If we’re doing something in Arkansas, we’re either driving the parts and pieces out there and flying a couple of guys out to do the install, or we’re using local talent and flying Will out there.”
Next, I ask about cost, because as someone who’s considering an upgrade from the renter’s life, I’m just a smidge curious. But there’s a deep sigh that follows my question. That’s because, as Tom and Will explain, it’s difficult to calculate the total price tag of the project from concept to completion. KitHaus’ most basic unit, the K3 with standard finishes, is priced at $32,500, while the K6 is at a well-within-reach $80,000. The caveat? There are a lot of factors to consider. Because every property and lot are different, Tom and Will tell me the utilities portion is hardest to estimate, especially because it falls on the buyer. Depending on the contractor, getting electricity to flow to a backyard site can range from $1,000 to $6,000. Add to that the cost of plumbing, which typically runs higher. There are also the costs of foundation work and concrete piers, among others. These are the kinds of details buyers are made aware of before they purchase their new digs.
Logistics aside, sometimes, the aesthetic of a new abode is the real clincher. Luckily, there are many companies that offer a wide variety of prefab homes as modular units—Zip Kit Homes, Alchemy Architects and Cubicco, to name a few—each with its own perks. Cubicco, for example, prides itself on building hurricane-proof structures ideal for locations like Florida.
While KitHaus guarantees a clean, modern look plucked out of an architecture magazine—Bamboo or plywood floors, corrugated galvalume roofing, frosted glass sliding doors—Bungalow in a Box, run by husband-and-wife duo Raoul and Vicki Hennin in Maine, boasts a cozier, New-England-esque look. Rather than embracing the outdoors with open arms, the company’s products are more of an invitation to come inside. Drink some tea. Stay warm. Or at least that’s how I picture it.
“I had a client recently describe it as an ‘updated farmhouse,’” says Raoul over the phone. He’s just returned from New Hampshire, where he delivered three truckloads of materials and raised a 2,000-square-foot structure with his crew—his biggest project to date.
With over 30 years of experience under his belt, Raoul offers three building methods. His panel-frame method—which lends itself well to small, lightweight structures—is similar to a conventional construction but uses prefabricated components. The timber-frame method is based on a traditional framing technique, married with an enclosure system called SIP (structural insulated panels). The last method relies more heavily on SIP, and because it involves fewer parts, creates a more streamlined interior. It all comes down to the customer’s vision. And as the materials arrive unfinished, the homeowners can choose how to customize it, be it through Bungalow in a Box or their own contractor.
After perusing the company’s website and photos of bungalows in their basic, naked form, I immediately begin dressing them up in my mind. Then, reluctantly, I click the “pricing” tab. The price of a one-room, 12-by-16-foot unit, which could be used as a guest house, a study room, an office, a little workshop (or maybe even a primary house if you’re into the whole tiny-house thing) starts at around $25,000. But if you fancy yourself something larger (by you, I mean me, because at this point, I’m already hooked), a 24-by-40-foot barn house—designed with an attic and eaves to accommodate windows on the second floor—comes in at $95,000.
Since Bungalow in a Box has planted homes on islands, lakes and mountains, Vicki says Arkansas’ topography would make it a good candidate for a project like this. And the delivery cost? Somewhere between $8,000 and $10,000 to Arkansas, she says, and just like Tom and Will advised me, there’s a handful of other costs to consider.
As with any building project, there are pros and cons to mull over, price points to evaluate. But should you find yourself looking for a high-design structure to place on a hard-to-build-on lot, a prefab dwelling might just be your next home away from home.