The terms “Container House design”


The terms “Container House design” and “prefabrication” don't often go together, but Lake|Flato Architects is trying the mix with a modular house.

The San Antonio-based firm — better known for its modern residences and for snagging the American Institute of Architects' coveted Architecture Firm Award in 2004 — is launching a new subsidiary company, Lake|Flato Porch House, to offer factory-built homes certified under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.

Architect-designed prefab homes are a relative rarity in Texas, but the concept has gained some traction on the East and West coasts.

The modules are being manufactured in Navasota, 70 miles northwest of Houston, by GroundFORCE Building Systems, and everything — cabinetry, flooring, windows, electrical and plumbing — is installed in the factory.

Modules are 17 feet wide, so they can fit onto a truck. But living rooms and bedrooms come in varying lengths that can be stacked on top of one another or placed together in varying configurations. Local builders who work with the firm will place the homes on their foundations, construct the porches and add exterior finishes.

“You still have to be able to personalize the design and adapt it to the site,” said Ted Flato, principal at Lake|Flato. “Each project is an attempt to come up with something new.”

The first Porch House is complete in Vanderpool, about 80 miles northwest of San Antonio in Bandera County, and a second is under construction now in Hebbronville, 155 miles south of San Antonio in Jim Hogg County. Others have been designed for sites in South Carolina and Baton Rouge, La.

Because it doesn't make economic sense to truck the modules more than about 500 miles, the architects have been in touch with manufacturers in Utah, Oregon, Maine, New Hampshire and Georgia.

The homes also can be designed as “net zero” with solar panels.

The Porch House puts a big emphasis on things the firm is particularly known for: porches as an extension of living space, a connection with the outdoors and placing a home on a piece of property so that it takes advantage of views, prevailing breezes and solar orientation.

“What Lake|Flato does particularly well comes into play,” said Lake|Flato architect Bill Aylor. “Yes, this is modular construction, but we're still applying our design expertise on how we can respond specifically to different sites.”

Although the word “prefab” can conjure images of trailer homes, the movement has taken off across the country as high-end architects have delved into a more affordable residential design. The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2008 did a prefab exhibition, “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling,” commissioning five architects to build prefab homes in a vacant lot next to the museum.

Sheri Koones, author of the 2010 book “Prefabulous + Sustainable: Building and Customizing an Affordable, Energy-Efficient Home” (Abrams), said prefab homes have some advantages over traditionally built homes. There's little waste that gets tossed into a dumpster, and workers are not traveling to remote sites during a months-long construction process.

“In some ways it's easier for houses built in a factory to be more sustainable,” Koones said. “And the weather has been so crazy all over the country, it makes sense to build a house that's in a protected environment.”

Lake|Flato first kicked the prefab idea around in earnest when the economy (and the architecture business) slowed down in 2008.

Designing and building a home with an architect is often a two-year process. But going with the modular design can compress that time period to between six and nine months, Flato said.

Depending on the number and size of units chosen, as well as interior finishes selected, costs for a completed and delivered Porch House will run between $150 and $225 per square foot, plus design services.

It's still a pricey product, but about half of what a traditionally built Lake|Flato Modular Home might cost. “It's a very affordable way to use an architect, but it's not going to work for everyone,” Flato said. “This is not for someone who doesn't care what their spaces are like.”