Charlie Lazor is the founder of FlatPak, the system of prefab building components that are configured to meet the client's needs. The client works with the design team to create the best house for the site and can have as much creative input as he or she wishes. Or simply leave it up to the design team. (The excellent FlatPak website features a revealing case study about this process.) The system is based on one component: an 8' wall that is one storey high. The design comes into being eight feet at a time, so the possibilities are almost endless. Or are they, now that the housing market is a mess?
FlatPak House in the Catskills
How are things going now that the real estate business is suffering? Is this a golden opportunity or the beginning of the end?
We sell a product that is a good value. We don't sell silver bullets. So like all good values, your market might shift in a severe downturn and you would expect to do less, but frankly, it's too early to tell. I can say we have clients looking to capitalize on hungry builders; savvy homeowners, university and resort property people. Worst case scenario, we can ride this out because we have low capital inputs and overhead and we'll be ready to rock when things getting moving again.
How do you respond to people who say that building prefab is almost as expensive as building onsite?
Yeah, this is a question that takes some work and good information to answer well. And it is easy to let the cost benefits of pre fab slip through your fingers if you don't keep clients on pre fab track or if you don't execute the fabrication and assembly properly. But first, you need to be aware of what you are comparing to what. Builder houses are simply another market and anything with a whiff of architecture to it is going to cost significantly more. I can compare what I know, which is FlatPak houses and the custom residential architecture my office does. When you include the design and structural engineering fees, our FlatPak houses cost about 20% to 30% less than our one off, custom, site built houses. So the comparison is architecture to architecture; thoughtful, considered, well designed, crafted, modern house vs the same in a pre fab methodology. If it's a builder house or some hollow, meaningless, bang it out, modern pastiche, then you've got us beat, because you can't compare the two. I can get a hamburger at McDonalds and I can get a hamburger at my local bistro.
See what I mean?
When people are questioning the economics of prefab, what are the advantages?
Cost savings aside, I think the best benefit is a much greater ability to know what the house will cost vs. a custom, one off, site built modern house. Here's the problem. Modern architects do not play by the rules of the dumb, dull house building industry. They ask builders to build things they have never built before. So builders don't know what it will cost and as a result, modern houses are very expensive and they take a long time to build. So you want one of those beautiful modern houses you see in a magazine? Good luck. If you want something real, something special, made with love and care and touch, either throw a ton of time and money at it [site built] or do it in a repetitive, systematic manner, like FlatPak, with known costs and a history of what it takes to build one. We know every bit and widget, before we start designing the house and we do the hard part in a shop. Again, pre fab is not a silver bullet, but speaking of FlatPak, it's a measurably less expensive, easy to understand and knowable way to get a good modernist house.
Photo of Charlie Lazor courtesy of Erin Nicole Johnson.