Eight years ago, young Bay Area architect Michelle Kaufman ignited the design world when she unveiled a pre-fab home at Sunset Magazine's Celebration Weekend that that was so cunningly designed you'd never guess it came out of a factory.
Some 24,000 people waited up to an hour in line to see the "Glide House." A year later she debuted her larger "Breezehouse" to similar excitement at Sunset's Menlo Park campus. Kaufman, who trained with Frank Gehry and Michael Graves, was toasted as an innovator and visionary among architects, modernists, designers and greenies alike, with glowing write-ups in the design press and also in mainstream media like Time, Newsweek and Wired.
But Kaufman struggled financially, with outmoded factory technology not up to the demands of such leading-edge construction and design. After the banking collapse, she was forced to shut down in 2009. Her acclaimed designs, however, live on, bought up and adapted by Blu Homes, a San Francisco- and Boston-based company founded out of MIT and the Rhode Island School of Design to transform the way pre-fab homes are built. Blu is building the homes out of a state-of-the-art factory set up in a 250,000-square-foot former World War II shipbuilding warehouse at Mare Island.
And now Sunset has teamed up with Blu and a Healdsburg developer to showcase a retooled Breezehouse etched into a steeply sloped lot in Healdsburg. The 2012 Sunset Idea House will be open for public tours from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays through Sundays through August.
"It has a lot of good design ideas in it. But the truly interesting thing is that 75 percent of this house was completed in the factory," said Kitty Morgan, the new editor-in-chief at Sunset, on hand for a recent preview tour. "That significantly cuts down on the time beween design and move-in."
Everything from tile and doors to insulation, windows and floors are done in the factory. And yet to see it, you wouldn't guess this sophisticated, two-story house materialized over only a matter of weeks with its cedar siding, 16-foot sliding glass doors, 14-foot ceilings and an open floor plan radiating off an enclosed "breezeway" that serves as the central living area.
Once the more complicated site work was completed, it took only a couple of days to unpack the pallets, unfold the house made of high-quality structural steel — some walls are literally hinged — and fit and bolt it together, not unlike like a child's construction toy.
The whole process took four to six weeks in the factory and another seven weeks on site, said Morgan. Because of the challenges of the lot as well as the more elaborate details and finishes that went into creating a dazzling showhouse — patios, mature landscaping, a pocket-sized vegetable garden, a stick-built basement office, garage beneath the breezeway and a small pre-fab "pod" turned into a guest house in back — it took seven weeks on site to complete. But a simpler, single-story Blu home, Morgan said, could be finished in as little as two weeks after placement.
One of the key advances made in the factory construction is the folding walls. This new generation of pre-fab homes, which includes not just the Breezehouse and Glidehouse but five other designs, are packed into 8? foot wide pallets so they can be shipped in regular semi-trailers rather than the wide-load trailers of the past, making it possible to deliver them virtually anywhere, said Maura McCarthy, a co-foundser and vice presdent of strategic development for Blu.