This series is brought to you by Autodesk BIM - Removing the Barriers to Better Business. Here's the third in a series of interviews with prefab architects and builders to take the pulse of prefab. This interview is with Charlie Lazor, founder of Minneapolis-based FlatPak, who is also a founder of Blu Dot.
Above (and below), The Week'nder house on Madeline Island in Lake Superior by FlatPak. Photos: George Heinrich Photography.
(Click the images below for full sized images)
FlatPak is best described as a comprehensive and integrated process that yields a customized architecture product. A flexible system, FlatPak houses are made of glass, wood, concrete and cement fiberboard panels that can be packed flat for shipping, hence the name. The pieces are assembled on site to cut down on cost and environmental impact.
The Week'nder, "the middle [big room] space is site built carpentry [simple, single trade, lower labor input] because I wanted to get a soaring space which can't be done pre fab. Having said that, we learned enough doing this first one such that the next Week'nder will have the center space made of pre fab panels and site assembled in the same manner as Flat Pak.
We spoke with you back in 2008 just after the big real estate bubble, how has the FlatPak house fared since then?
Well enough but like all of us in the architecture, were not exactly suffering from exhaustion these days. But this slower market has allowed us to slow down and do some thinking and research about other pre fab strategies. The focus has been lower price points.
The Week'nder, "two modules with all the 'stuff' [mechanical/electrical/plumbing/kitchen/baths] in the factory built modules."
Prefab in the USA appears to have settled into the quality-construction-in-remote/difficult-site niche (among others), has that been the case for FlatPak?
Yes, FlatPak has been doing well in remote sites. With our pre fabrication methods we can do high quality modern houses where the required builder experience or even the labor is thin. We did a house on an island, we've got another one going on a remote lake in Canada and we're evaluating a few others around the country. So yes, remote sites are part of our mix but cities and metro areas are the part of our work. The key reason is cost; if you compare an apple to an apple it usually costs less to pre fabricate a house than to site build. The other is predictability in price, schedule and craft. We know our costs, the time it takes to build it and we have full control over the fit and finish. Who doesn't want that and you ain't gonna get that site building a fancy pants modern house. We know, because we do site built houses too. Site built is a different animal and so it behaves differently....or simply disobeys.
Teaneck FlatPak, a three bedroom FlatPak house in a Teaneck, New Jersey neighbourhood.
Is prefab at FlatPak evolving? If yes, in which way(s)?
We've learned thru experience that the key benefit of FlatPak and our modular pre fab work is that price, schedule and quality are knowable before we build. Pre fab prices are lower, about 10 to 20% if you were to do the same thing site built. FlatPak's fabrication director is a builder and he doesn't want to site build anymore. He hates waste and material and labor waste is the difference; it's measurably less. So that part works. The next part for us has been to develop more products at different price points. Henry Ford invented the model T but that wasn't the end of car design. Fitting niches has been our focus; price niches and expectation niches. Some things that are so important to us as architects, and cost something to do, are not appreciated or even noticed by the client. Some people have to have an 8 cylinder engine and some are perfectly happy with a 4 cylinder. Its that kind of thing. FlatPak was designed like a 6 cylinder BMW; highly crafted, sophisticated structure and progressive building technology. Today, people have less to spend so we've developed a less expensive FlatPak system house that runs about $200-220/sf. We're also doing modular houses at about $180-200/sf. There are many ways to think about and practice pre fabrication. Its it's own design problem.
Teaneck FlatPak, see the photo gallery on Facebook.