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modular, modernist... say what?



Following the interest generated by their original weeHouse, Alchemy Architects of St. Paul, Minnesota, recently announced their weeHouses line of customized prefabricated dwellings. Plans of the new weeHouse base models are available here. More detailed product information will be posted to the Alchemy Architects web site in the near future.(Ed: Alchemy Architects changed their name to Warner+Asmus as per the link below)

In February 2004 we spoke to Geoff Warner of Warner + Asmus about their new product line.

fpf Congratulations on the new product line. You guys have certainly been busy since you first shipped weeHouse last year. What led you to develop this series?
GW   Thanks - we HAVE been busy! We received a lot of positive feedback after the first weeHouse had some limited press coverage last year. Our first weeHouse was designed for a specific client and a specific site and is not ideal for everybody. It was a poetic statement as much as a practical one. It became clear very quickly that there was demand for wee-like structures in various configurations. We tried to develop a flexible and practical group of weeHouses that can be modified or combined in various ways.

Geoff Warner
fpf How important is affordability to you?
GW   Affordability is a basic principle for us. We are very committed to making this series both accessible and practical. Modernism has been viewed as the domain of the wealthy which really is not what modernism is about at all. Factory-built modernism should be affordable by definition .
fpf   Can we talk about price?  

We will be releasing specific pricing for various models very soon. We will have a base configuration for each model and then pricing is determined by additions and subtractions depending on options selected by the client. We also include 1,000 miles of freight in the base price and the price gets adjusted up or down depending on the delivery location. In a very general sense we see anything below $100/sq ft as being "affordable" but our customers will be able to configure up or down as they wish.


You built the original weeHouse in a warehouse yourself. Tell us about your fabrication plans for the wider product line.

GW   We wanted to utilize prevailing fabrication resources and so we have partnered with an existing company that does this stuff all the time. They will handle all of our fabrication. This series is different to what they are used to doing in terms of the aesthetic, but they're really open to collaborating with us to explore different ways of working that open up their market. From the new construction and hands-on renovation experience we've had we're beginning to understand what materials we're comfortable with.
fpf What is the "'minimum efficient scale" of this business from a fabrication standpoint: what production volume does the fabricator require for the numbers to work?
GW   We have gone to great lengths to work within their existing system. We made a bunch of changes after examining their system closely and so the process to fabricate for us is not a major departure for them. This means the notion of a minimum 'special order' does not really apply here. Also modular fabricators are accustomed to quoting for jobs based on plans and having to generate working drawings. However when working with us the fabricator will not have to interact with the client - we will deliver the working drawings complete, so in this sense their workload is reduced.
fpf   What kind of delivery timeframe will you be quoting?  

We see four distinct phases of client interaction:
1. Getting information to the customer.
2. Working to design the appropriate weeHouse for the customer. We are excited to announce that we will be including up to 10 hours of design time in each order.
3. Once we have configured a solution then the pricing and ordering phase takes place.
4. Finally we have our delivery sequence. We are quoting 10-12 weeks from final order to delivery.
We want this to be almost as easy as ordering a sofa - but we might deliver quicker than some sofas get delivered!

fpf What constraints does the manufacturing and fulfilment process place on your design approach?
GW   Road haulage was a major determinant for us. Dimensions were constrained by what can be trucked around the country. Various dimensions were kept at a level that allows us to ship anywhere in the continental USA. Also by using standard products such as windows and doors we are able to keep prices down. As I mentioned before, we made various design adjustments to suit the fabrication process.



Your modules are 14' wide and have an 8ft ceiling height yet some other modular designers offer larger dimensions than these. Can you talk about your decision process?


Overall cost is an issue. The larger the modules are, the more expensive they are to build and to ship. We wanted affordability and to be able to ship anywhere. We also asked "Do we really need a 9ft ceiling height?" We feel that with good design 8ft doesn't need to feel claustrophobic. Our designs are very open.

fpf   Can you tell us a bit about the type of construction and the materials you have used?

The weeHouses use 'standard' timber frame construction undertaken indoors with upgrades for withstanding the moving stresses. For example we have metal binding plates at the corners of all openings and the wall board is all glued and screwed incredibly tight. We use floor and roof trusses that are stronger than I-joists. These houses are very strong. Interestingly the house is built inside out, with the wall board going on before the exterior sheeting. This is done for reasons of production efficiency rather than strength.
We will offer a range of exterior finishes. In addition to the oxidized wash on the original weeHouse we will offer wooden slats or painted panels. Tongue and groove pine will be standard on the floors. The only color rule we have is that all sheet rock inside is white!

fpf   What type of warranty will you offer on the weeHouse series?
GW    We offer 10 years on the structural shell, 2 years on mechanical systems installed at the factory (such as mechanical air or plumbing) and we will offer 1 year on minor aesthetic details to cover any small issues that arise from shipping and installation. I would also note that the manufacturer's warranty will cover items such as windows. We are using Andersen windows - the world's largest window manufacturer. They have a great brand and offer 10 years warranty.
fpf   How are variations in building codes impacting on your goals to supply nationally?
GW   We will automatically add upgrades for the jurisdiction our client is in. This will only have a modest impact on pricing. These structures are inherently hurricaine and earthquake resistant but we will obviously make specific adjustments to meet code. The weeHouses are already designed for Zone 4, 90 mile per hour winds. Minor upgrades are needed for tougher environments.


fpf   What will your sales and marketing function look like? Will you undertake this activity centrally or will you work with regional agents/brokers?
GW   Our sales and marketing function is centralized. We want to have a direct relationship with the client. This is a form of quality control for us. It might create a bottleneck of sorts but we're willing to face that in order to maintain the quality of our relationships and our product. Direct interaction with the client is also a great learning forum for us.


  What proportion of your customers do you think will be shopping for a primary residence as opposed to a weekender/retreat/vacation home?
GW   After the first weeHouse was launched we had a great response from people across the US and overseas from Puerto Rico to Portugal. There was great diversity in the needs of these people ranging from home office to rooftop extension. We will definitely see people looking for a weekender, for example, but how many clients in each category we'll just have to see.
fpf   Thanks for talking to fabprefab Geoff and best wishes for your weeHouses.
GW   Thank you fabprefab!  


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