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Preview: Joel Turkel, Prefab Design

Ten years ago, during the very first year of Dwell, we wrote about the promises of prefab. Today, the discussion is far from over, with questions of affordability and feasibility still ripe for the asking. This Friday, Dwell editor Miyoko Ohtake sits down with Joel Turkel form Joel Turkel Design and Riley Pratt from Marmol Radziner to chat about the current state of prefab. To get you ready, we spoke with Turkel about his firm and his prefab designs with Lindal Cedar Homes for the Dwell Homes Collection.

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How do you describe your partnership with Lindal Cedar Homes for your prefab homes? What we do is create base designs for Lindal that we've priced and drawn but they're just conversation starters. The service we provide to our clients is taking these homes and modifying them within parameters but allowing clients to express individuality and create a home reflective of their lifestyle, budget, and so on. What kind of inquiries have you been getting recently? The majority of work is with the Dwell Homes. People are looking for smaller, more intelligent, sustainably designed homes. We have two Dwell Homes that people have moved into, one almost completed, construction underway for three of four more, and about six that will start construction this summer. We're getting leaner and better at working through the process. It's been a learning experience since we started working with Lindal. We've been working out the kinks. What kind of kinks? Kinks is the wrong work. It's the learning of their manufacturing system. We were designing homes with eight-foot-by-eight-foot glass doors but learned if we made seven-foot-by-eight-foot doors with a one-foot window then that configuration would be about $3,000 cheaper. Little things like that make an enormous impact on the cost and complexity of a design but little difference on the architectural expression. It's been us educating them on how we detail a building and them educating us on how they list the components. It needs to be an open feedback loop. Your prefab homes are doing well. How would you describe the state of prefab overall? It's inundated with architects who are trying to architecturalize the problem; they want the issue of prefab to be an architecture problem. It's like the saying When you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail. It's much more about the delivery mechanism though: When you walk out the door as a consumer to buy a house, what are all the things required for you to turn the key in the door and walk into the house? The delivery mechanism included what it is, what it's made of, where you get it, who builds it. Architecture is one important piece of the equation but not the whole piece. It takes a series of devoted parties who all bring a subset of important expertise to the table. The state of prefab is really disorganized. To be successful people need to leverage the capacity of other people who do things really well and work in conjunction with them.

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The TD3 1710 by Joel Turkel Design, available through Lindal Cedar Homes.
Is that what you're attempting to do by partnering with Lindal? Lindal has a 65-year history with 130 dealerships around the work and hundreds of people working for them. They have relationships with local builders, plumbers, and other parties. Those are the companies and networks you need to work with. One complaint about prefab architecture we often here is that it is too expensive. Our readers want prefab architecture to equal inexpensive architecture. How can that happen? It's an understandable desire but also makes no sense when you look at market size. Costs come down when volumes go up. A Hyundai costs what it does because they make 50,000 of them. Prefabs are such a minute part of the housing market. There's no way the price is going to go down because 30 prefab homes were sold in one year.

People want it to be cheap because it's manufactured but they have a tough time facing the fact that prefab houses are really cheap; they're called mobile homes. People don't want really cheap prefab; they want really sexy prefab that's also cheap.
So if it's not yet affordability that is the reason to choose prefab, what are its advantages? What people need to look at in prefab is that is provides predictability. When you prefabricate something, you know how much it's going to cost, how long it's going to take, and what it's going to be made of. That doesn't mean it's going to be cheaper or faster but it's comforting knowing.
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The Serenbe House in Palmetto, Georgia, by Joel Turkel Design.

Joel Turkel of Joel Turkel Design will join Riley Pratt of Marmol Radziner and Dwell editor and panel moderator Miyoko Ohtake in Los Angeles on the Dwell on Design Sustainability Stage on Friday, June 25. Register now!

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