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In March 2004 we spoke to Michelle Kaufmann of MK Architecture about Glidehouse.

fpf What motivated you to create Glidehouse?

Michelle Kaufmann

The project is the result of a frustrated and failed search for modern affordable housing in San Francisco. I had recently moved to San Francisco to join my husband after 6 months of a long-distance marriage. I was in LA working for Frank Gehry, Kevin was in SF, and we flew back and forth every weekend. When we finally decided to live in the same city, we wanted to find somewhere that could really be a home for us.

So began the most frustrating 6 months of my life searching for a house in the Bay Area. Sunday mornings racing around to open houses, always being disappointed by what was available and shocked by the prices. “$600,000 for a one bedroom fixer-upper!! Move fast! This deal won’t last!” We were just about to give up when we thought about the possibility of building a home. Once we made that decision,everything moved very quickly. We found a lot within a week. I started designing a small modern sustainable house. My husband Kevin kept questioning and pushing me to make the house as green as possible.

During the design process, we had a lot of interest from friends and colleages. Our friends were saying that they wanted one too. “Can you do a modern, green house like that for us?” So, we started thinking about how that could happen. I started talking to many factories and modular builders to see about the possibility of making our house in quantity.
fpf Did you hold a view that you were developing a product?
Absolutely. As we worked through the details with the factories, we used our friends as a kind of litmus test. We tried to imagine what they would want in terms of process and product. I think the process is a big component. Our friends are young(-ish) people, who are quite busy with work, biking, snowboarding and starting to have kids. So, although many are in the design-related or green-related field in some way, they are too busy to go through the typical process of hiring an architect, designing a house, going through the permit process, finding a contractor, meeting weekly with the contractor and architect, dealing with hassles that can arise during the building process.

We therefore designed the process, as well as the product, to be as streamlined as possible. So, unless a buyer has a desire to be greatly involved (or has a brother who is a contractor), they can just make the critical choices in the beginning, and then sit back and have someone else complete the work until the house arrives.

Although we originally designed it for our friends, we found that many different types of people found the Glidehouse suited their needs – older people wanting to downsize and simplify their lives, people looking for a second home, people looking for an in-law unit for local parent care, or people who want to live as lightly on the land as possible.
 fpf   And what does the purchasing process look like? 
MK   It is a very simple process, without many of the hassles of a typical process, that allows someone to have an architect-designed home, give input to customize as desired, choose all finishes.

1. Client chooses basic plan, with customizations, options and upgrades, as well as financing with Marshall Mayer at LiveModern.
2. Client works with architect to create any revisions/customization from that plan
3. Plan submitted to factory for final pricing
4. Factory representative submits for permit
5. Factory builds Glidehouse while factory representative oversees local builder to do foundations, utility lines and site work.
6. 4 to 6 months later the Glidehouse arrives in 2 truckloads, complete with exterior and interior finishes, plumbing fixtures, all lighting and electrical.
7.“Button up” work is completed by factory rep. and 2 weeks after arrival of Glidehouse the owner can move in.
fpf   What compromises did you have to make to get this to market?
There are certain design constraints with modular building that have to do with shipping dimensions, more than what the factory can actually do. Once someone understands those constraints and can design them in from the beginning, there aren’t too many compromises to make in the design.

The biggest compromise I have made so far is monetary. It is very important to me to keep this product affordable. I want my friends, and people like my friends to be able to afford a modern green home. This is more important to me than making a lot of money. I have kept my fees to a bare minimum and am requiring that of all others on the Glidehouse team. That has been a big challenge. Everyone on the Glidehouse team is fantastic. I would love if they could all be paid a lot of money for the great work. But, that is not what this project is about.

I feel like this is a long-term investment. I do not see us getting rich any time soon. But I do see us impacting what people can (and should) demand from the housing market. I want to help in whatever way I can to make it possible for people to have affordable green housing. People are beginning to demand affordable hybrid or electric cars, affordable healthy organic food, etc. The more people see that it is possible, the demand will increase, and the kinds of available choices in housing will increase.

Obviously, “affordability” can mean many different things to different people in different areas. In California, the Glidehouse costs much less than typical new construction. We have designed a very nice basic Glidehouse specification list that will offer people clean, healthy living at an affordable price. But, there also a number of upgrade options to choose from if an owner wants a 7’ Jacuzzi tub, or an exterior Japanese hot pool, etc
fpf You are using a network of fabricators. How easy was that to organize and how complete is the network?
Initially the majority of the factories were not interested in discussing any modern designs, but rather, were eager to offer up one of their colonial or faux-chateau designs. It took quite a while to find anyone who was willing to discuss making the Glidehouse, but eventually we found the right people in the modular world who had a similar vision. There has been a tremendous response to the Glidehouse and that helped us be able to find factories that see this as a viable investment. Currently we have coverage on the intermountain and coastal states of the West, Michigan, Ontario, BC, and are working on New York and other east coast states.
fpf   Are you planning to supply nationally? How do variations in building codes impact on your goals?
MK   Yes we plan to supply nationally and should be able to do so fairly soon.

Surprisingly, the various building codes are not too much of a problem. The modular factories have been dealing with various codes for a while. The Glidehouse does have two versions – one for snow conditions and one for non-snow conditions like California. The difference is in the roof lines and windows. But, we have designed it to surpass all insulation requirements (which helps reduce the energy use), seismic, etc.

Since the Glidehouse is going to be shipped on a truck, it is actually constructed to be stronger than on-site building. It still uses standard 2x6 walls and 2x10 floors and roofs, all the connections are glued in addition to just being screwed. This makes them more sturdy for shipping, and that strength is something you can actually feel when you walk in. It feels solid.

Another benefit of the Glidehouse being built in the factory is that they have 3rd-party inspections at the factory. They represent the local jurisdiction for the area the owner will live in and review for compliance to those local building and safety codes,
That eliminates those nightmarish surprises that can cause delays and added expenses for the contractor and home owner.
fpf Are your fabricators content to produce on a piecemeal basis or do they need to see some volume for their numbers to really work?
MK   They have agreed to build them as the orders come in, but with more orders, there will be more savings.



You spent five years in Frank Gehry’s office. What projects were you working on there?


While I worked with Frank, it was mainly on museums. This is one of my favorite building types – spaces of display. There were many things about designing museums that I now apply to residential work. Create clean spaces, control daylight at different times of the day, produce good lighting, but hide the lighting source, use clerestory windows to create a clean wash of light on the ceiling and space. One of my favorite museums is the Norton Simon museum in Pasadena. I love the way the gallery spaces connect to the sculpture gardens. This blurring of the interior and exterior is something I am also interested in with residential work.

fpf   Can you tell us about the materials you have chosen and why?

Cor-ten steel as used by Richard Serra

The exterior siding is Cor-ten steel.
It has that warm velvet color and texture that looks contextual whether it is in the woods, in the desert, or in the middle of a neighborhood. There is no maintenance required, and it just keeps looking better over time. Sculptors, like my favorite – Richard Serra - have been using it for years. I enjoy watching people who can’t help but touch these pieces. I love the idea of a tactile house. Cor-ten is also a material I associate with home. I grew up in Iowa where there were a lot of beautiful rusted steel buildings.

Walls of Low-E sliding glass doors.

These maximize cross-ventilation, maximize natural lighting, maximize connection to the outdoors. Through the use of 8’ wide sliding louvered panels in front of the glass doors, one can customize the amount of daylight and shading depending on the time of day and year. The sliding louvered panels also can lock into place and provide security when the sliding glass doors remain open for constant breeze but homeowners are away or sleeping.

Galvalume metal roof.
Low maintenance. When solar panels are used, they blend in to the galvalume metal roof beautifully.

Bamboo flooring.
This is renewable wood. The strand woven bamboo uses the waste from other bamboo floorings and recycles it into a lovely textured wood floor that is quite durable.
Concrete countertops with recycled materials. Beautiful. Green. What more could you ask for?

Wood Storage wall. The storage wall allows a system for a lot of “stuff”, so the living space can remain clean and uncluttered. This system also allows people flexibility to customize their spaces depending on the kind of storage they put behind each door (e.g. literature, media, sports equipment) or they can leave open for display, or leave out to expand living space.

fpf   Your marketing materials make a statement about sustainable design. Can you tell us what this means to you?

Sustainable design means a number of things to me.
Green living – minimizing the amount of energy used to build the house (modular manufacturing has very little waste) and also the use of renewable/recyclable materials. Also minimizing the amount of energy the homeowner will use while living in the house. For example using glass walls and panels to control temperature and shading, solar or geo-thermal where appropriate, using a proprietary Heating Recovery system that recycles 30% of the energy used during heating and cooling, Radiant heat flooring, using high r-values for insulation etc.
It also means healthy living – for example creating an environment that surpasses standards from the American Lung Association.


fpf   You have announced a range of Glidehouse floor plans and this seems to demonstrate the flexibility of modular construction. Which model will be on show at Sunset Celebration Weekend?
MK   The 2-bedroom with views option is being built for the Sunset Celebration weekend.
Yes, there is a range of plan options. All have the same basic box configuration and details (to maintain benefit of mass production), but depending on how you put the boxes together, you can have an L-shape, or a courtyard U-shape, or a long plan for a lot with views. There is quite a bit of flexibility so the house can be configured to fit the site and the way the owner lives.


  How does the financing process for modular homes differ from homes built on-site?
MK   It is slightly different, but no more difficult for the buyer as long as they know the banks that specialize in modular building. The rates are the same, down-payments and appraisals are the same as site-built. The draw system for payments to the factory vs. general contractor are what is different. We have a few banks that we recommend who specialize in modular lending and make it as simple as possible for the buyer. They can roll land and Glidehouse into one loan, can offset payments until the house is complete and so forth.
fpf   Thanks for talking to fabprefab Michelle, we look forward to following the success of GlideHouse.
MK   Thank you.  
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