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Roger Kurath on Prefab

We get a nice double dose of architect Roger Kurath, principal of Design*21, this year at Dwell on Design. First check out the Tatami Residence he designed in Marina del Rey on the Westside Home Tour on June 18th, then hear him talk about the current state of prefabricated design on Saturday, June 25, on the Sustainability Stage. Here's a sneak peek of what's on Roger's mind, how he sees prefab design playing out in Southern California, and how he thinks we can learn from the building methods at work in his native Switzerland.

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You just designed a wonderful new prefab house near Marina del Rey. Can you describe the client and the process?
The house is for a young Japanese couple with no kids—she’s from Japan and very traditional and he was born in America. Because they are very private they didn’t want to interact that much with the neighbors or have too many exterior windows. So I oriented the design toward an interior courtyard. She works from home but I didn’t want her office to be excluded from the rest of the house so the office has good views of the house and lots of light.

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The courtyard of Kurath's Tatami residence, a poem in prefab simplicity.
Tell me about the construction.
The proportions of the house are based on a tatami mat. Once we decided on that system for the house I worked with the engineer to design the optimal size, weight, and so forth for the exterior wall panels to be installed without a crane. And in the end all the panels are the same size, except for those that fit on the ends.
That’s not the typical approach for most architects?
No. It was more of a manufacturing approach than a design approach. I knew I wanted to tilt up the walls with a little forklift instead of a crane, so that’s how the engineer and I organized things.
Where do you see prefab going in Southern California?
Right now is a great time to do it. But I don’t think that prefabrication of entire houses is the way to go. Here in America there’s a sense that if a house is prefab then the entire thing has to be prefab, but prefabricating parts of the home in factories and designing for a logical prefab system is what I prefer. They’re more advanced in that regard in Europe than here.
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Here's a view of the kitchen space of the Tatami residence taken from the central courtyard. The owners of the home wanted privacy so Kurath oriented the house around this internal outdoor space.

It’s a different mentality in Europe?
I’m doing a six-unit residence in a ski town in Switzerland of some 7000 square feet and we put up all the walls in two weeks. They were made in a factory with the windows put in, and some of the electrical wiring already set. That’s the prefab that I really believe in: Prefabricate elements of the house and you’ll have better quality control, quicker construction times, and you’ll also end up saving money too. Just make the pieces and put them together. It’s like Lego. And that’s the way forward.

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