written by:
photos by:
May 1, 2009
Originally published in Prefab's Promise

Intelligent, appealing, and affordable, Charlie Lazor’s user-friendly FlatPak just might be the project that revolutionizes the prefab industry.

Front view of the FlatPak House in Minneapolis, Minnesota. When the architect first told his wife about his idea, she said, “It’s about time you focus on a house for me!” He continues, “It’s like the old story about the cobbler whose kids have no shoes.”
Front view of the FlatPak House in Minneapolis, Minnesota. When the architect first told his wife about his idea, she said, “It’s about time you focus on a house for me!” He continues, “It’s like the old story about the cobbler whose kids have no shoes.”
Photo by 
1 / 10
Modern living room with contemporary furniture such as carpets by InterfaceFLOR and armchairs by Blu Dot.
Having lived, he says, in “a number of houses where the living room is the most adorned and the least used,” it was important for Lazor to create a functional family living space. As the gathering above attests, it worked. The carpet is by InterfaceFLOR, and the armchairs by Blu Dot.
Photo by 
2 / 10
Modern living room designs with industrial stairs
The industrial stair leads to the upper level, where the bedrooms, bathrooms, and play space are located.
Photo by 
3 / 10
modern interior design decorating ideas for kitchens
“It was a major decision to put the kitchen in the center where everything would revolve around it,” says Lazor. “We did this simply by following what patterns we observed—it was just where people gravitated.” The bar stools are by Blu Dot, and the chairs by Charles and Ray Eames.
Photo by 
4 / 10
Contemporary deck in a kit home
The big ‘move’ was to create the little box, a separate stand-alone piece that gave us a resolutely private sanctuary,” says Lazor. “It’s a place with no phone, no TV, no other person. The second big thing was the space in between the courtyard, which cements the house to the site and takes advantage of the greenway behind the space.”
Photo by 
5 / 10
Childrens tables and chairs in a prefabricated home
Jasper and Maeve take five. One of their requests was for their dad to create a secret door to connect their bedrooms together.
Photo by 
6 / 10
Contemporary bedroom design ideas in a prefabricated house
The master bedroom features a low-level picture window that opens out to the green space behind the house.
Photo by 
7 / 10
Bathroom design ideas for a modern prefab house
The master bath contains all functions in the white fiberglass panel that runs the length of the wall. Lazor designed the vanity; the tub is by Duravit.
Photo by 
8 / 10
modular home with a glass fronted walkway
A glass-fronted walkway leads from the main house to the office/play area.
Photo by 
9 / 10
Modern kit home in Minnesota
The courtyard is just one of many open spaces that will be highly utilized—in the non-winter months anyway. Concrete worked well with developing the language of FlatPak. The second level is a wood panel that can be clad in corrugated metal or cedar—different layers that can be plugged in like covers on your cellphone.
Photo by 
10 / 10
Front view of the FlatPak House in Minneapolis, Minnesota. When the architect first told his wife about his idea, she said, “It’s about time you focus on a house for me!” He continues, “It’s like the old story about the cobbler whose kids have no shoes.”
Front view of the FlatPak House in Minneapolis, Minnesota. When the architect first told his wife about his idea, she said, “It’s about time you focus on a house for me!” He continues, “It’s like the old story about the cobbler whose kids have no shoes.”
Project 
FlatPak House

See if this story doesn’t sound familiar. You’ve grown tired of landlords, upstairs neighbors fond of vacuuming in the middle of the night, and throwing your money away on rent. You start perusing the weekend open-home listings in the paper and begin to think seriously about moving your growing family into a home of your own. But once you start looking at what’s out there, depression sets in and the realization hits: If you have more than a casual interest in modern architecture and less than a six-figure salary, your dream home might remain just that.

Such was the story of architect Charlie Lazor, who began looking for a house in Minneapolis for himself, his wife Zelda, and their two children, Jasper, six, and Maeve, eight. The prospects weren’t looking good. But instead of settling or giving up, Lazor took action and launched FlatPak, a prefabricated house system that aims to provide “architecture for the ordinary pocketbook.”

“FlatPak didn’t start out as a grand plan,” Lazor explains. “It started from my own frustration. Zelda and I wanted a house. We didn’t like what was out there. So I started to design a system appropriate to my needs.” 

One of those needs was the knowledge that his family of four would “only last a year in a rental,” jokes Lazor. Notwithstanding the challenges of any temporary living situation, the Lazor brood was supportive from the start. Zelda, who teaches high school literature, was thrilled. “I knew he would come up with a fabulous idea. In our first apartment in New York,” she recalls, “he devised furniture out of found objects and made them exquisite. Our first dining room table was made from two-by-fours, cinder blocks, and a piece of glass. His ability to take material and make it beautiful is his forte. I completely trusted him with the concept and design of our house.”

Granted, Lazor was uniquely qualified to put the plan for something like FlatPak in motion. As cofounder with architect Maurice Blanks and sculptor John Christakos  of the modern furniture company Blu Dot, he’d already devoted eight years to the creation of modern, affordable design. Blu Dot’s simple and elegant furniture has long been recognized for its precise and inventive use of materials, fabrication technologies, and methods of assembly. FlatPak was a direct outgrowth of that.

Other models for Lazor’s venture were architect Jean Prouvé and designer Charles Eames, both of whom developed easily manufactured components for the furniture and houses they designed. “Both tapped into the technology of their time,” observes Lazor. “Prouvé wasn’t depending on the nascent housing industry to get his stuff made, he was looking at the steel industry.”

Building a house is far more complex than making a chair or table, however, and Lazor realized that in order for the FlatPak system to work, he would “need to be the case study inhabitant and the builder and the assembler of the first house. Only through doing do you find the efficiencies. An incredibly rich amount of data and experience comes out of the process.”

His first step was, quite simply, to think about the best way to get off the ground. “One idea,” says Lazor, “was a house that was largely underground—almost [Japanese architect Tadao] Ando-like. It’s what they call here in Minnesota a ‘walkout’ where you sleep below and live on the ground floor. Ultimately, excavation costs were too high—and besides, people didn’t respond well to the sleeping-underground concept at all.”

Lazor saw the need for a panel system that could receive different types of cladding (cedar, corrugated metal, Douglas fir) and simultaneously allow walls to be opened up generously in a single stroke (that is to say, by a large piece of glass). “I wanted to simplify the deployment of the components,” Lazor explains. “That meant minimizing the number of corners. Really, the ideal rhythm is A, A, A, only putting in B or C when completely necessary.”

The resulting FlatPak system is a highly flexible kit of parts that boils down to three basic components: concrete wall panels; wood-framed panels with wood, metal, or cement-board siding; and a wood frame infilled with large expanses of glass. The roof is a metal structural insulated panel (SIP) of Kynar-painted steel and rigid insulation. (“Imagine a sandwich,” Lazor explains. “The bread is steel and the bologna is insulation.”) And the way the house is put together couldn’t be more basic: in a word, bolts. “FlatPak is a design game that even a kid can play,” says Lazor. “It’s designed to be easily understood and manipulated by a layperson.”

“In Denmark,” he continues, “there is bread that is sublime, there is butter that is sublime. I don’t need complicated sauces to feel fulfilled, just sublime bread and butter.”

In a profession where complexity is often valued over practicality, Lazor’s approach to architecture is refreshingly straightforward and unburdened by the ego of its creator—it’s also rife with possibility. His system isn’t about reinventing the wheel; it’s about drawing from existing conditions and allowing them to flourish. Instead of asking a single manufacturer to fabricate a newly designed building module, for example, Lazor took a lesson from his experience at Blu Dot, where elements like panels and drawer pulls are sourced from a variety of different manufacturers, allowing each supplier to continue doing what it does best. “If you go with a single manufacturer, you have to use their tools, their materials, and that’s limiting,” says Lazor. “So I searched for off-the-shelf systems that I could tweak aesthetically, systems that could be used in a new way. This ensures flexibility and a design that isn’t bound by what a certain company or manufacturer can provide.”

Ease of construction is also key to FlatPak’s present and future success. Its post-and-beam construction with engineered assembly is designed to be builder- and inspector-friendly—and it is. It took a crew of four two days to install the foundation and the first-floor walls, two days to set the second-floor walls and floor, a day and a half for the roof, and four days to set the glass. And it’s as easy to disassemble, a feature Lazor describes as its most ecological, albeit with one caveat. “I don’t subscribe to the idea that you reassemble it somewhere else,” he explains, referring to the oft-repeated mantra of the portable architecture movement. “But rather that its ultimate disposal is handled in a more green manner. The parts of this house can be reused. In another context, they could still perform.”

Now that his 2,600-square-foot home is complete, Lazor is eager to deliver its future incarnations to the masses. His FlatPak catalog features four prototypes with varying floor-plan configurations and a variety of cladding materials, interior wall surfaces, and flooring options that include modular carpet squares from InterfaceFLOR. Lazor is hoping to deliver a complete, erected FlatPak house for $140 per square foot, contingent of course on location (he estimates $190–$200 per square foot on both coasts), site conditions, and local building codes. Design services are offered as part of the package—not at the typical architects’ rate of 10 to 15 percent but at the customer-friendly rate of $999 for a home without a site, $1,999 if a site has already been procured. Manufacturing and construction of the first house took six months from start to finish; Lazor is hoping to deliver subsequent ones in four.

Since stories on the house appeared in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the New York Times, Lazor has been busy fielding queries from potential clients. But for now, his greatest satisfaction comes from living with his family in FlatPak House. “I never thought I’d be able to build a house for my family that I designed,” he says. “By just looking at the problem in a different way, it became possible. I am thrilled I could do this.”

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

20160229 dgd highhouse 1777 1024x683
Two toddlers, a pup, and their parents fit onto a 16.5-foot-wide plot in an inner suburb of Melbourne.
May 27, 2016
rec
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
May 27, 2016
capitol gains seattle multifamily living dining room wassily chair chaise le corbusier cb2
Two Seattle architects design and build a dynamic multifamily structure on a formerly vacant lot.
May 27, 2016
modern beach house thatch roof living dining bar cart
By eliminating walls and incorporating a series of interior gardens, architect José Roberto Paredes creates an eclectic and inspired El Salvador beach house.
May 27, 2016
7
A two-story Eichler in San Francisco gets a freshening up.
May 27, 2016
Bathyard renovation in Madrid, Spain
In Madrid, Spain, Husos Architects renovate a turn-of-the-20th-century apartment for a client with dual passions: her houseplants and a nice, long bath.
May 26, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
May 26, 2016
starting over sturgeon bay facade tongue and groove new growth cypress  0
After a devastating fire, architect David Salmela designs a house to replace a beloved lakeside retreat in Wisconsin.
May 26, 2016
Modern home with brick base and cedar rain screen on top level
An architect reimagines an outdated brick garage by designing a graceful new family home atop its foundation.
May 26, 2016
sardenya lr 7
A renovation brings light and order to a Spanish flat, maintaining its standout ceilings.
May 25, 2016
pow 5 25 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
May 25, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent thom fougere winnipeg canada cthom fougere studio thom fougere saddle chair 2
Designer Thom Fougere plays with scale and typology to create playful furniture.
May 25, 2016
prs my16 0067 v001 1
In the worlds of architecture and design, we’re always looking for the best ways of supporting sustainable building practices. This awareness doesn’t have to stop at our driveways but rather, it can extend to the cars we choose to take us to the places we go each day. With Toyota’s 2016 Prius, the daily task of getting from point A to point B can now be experienced with a new level of efficiency, safety, and style.
May 25, 2016
mountfordarchitects western australia
On a narrow site in Western Australia, Mountford Architects makes the most of a tight spot—with an eye to the future.
May 25, 2016
San Francisco living room with Wassily chairs
Materials and furniture transformed the layout of this San Francisco house, without the need for dramatic structural intervention.
May 24, 2016
shiver me timbers tallow wood kitchen
A pair of married architects put their exacting taste to work on their own family escape in the Australian bush.
May 24, 2016
in the balance small space massachusetts cantilevered cabin glass facade
When nature laid down a boulder of a design challenge in the Massachusetts mountains, an architect’s solution elevated the project to new heights.
May 24, 2016
Wooden Walkways
A home in Ontario, Canada, demonstrates how factory-built housing can be as site sensitive as traditional construction.
May 24, 2016
15 icff 5
From Corian furniture to immersive installations, here are some of our favorite designs we saw at the 2016 shows.
May 24, 2016
gpphoto44
A home and community celebrate natural remove in unison.
May 24, 2016
With our annual issue devoted to the outdoors on newsstands, we did a lap of Instagram for some extra inspiration.
May 23, 2016
forest for the trees english prefab mobile home facade chesnut cladding
On the edge of a historic park in an English shire, a prefabricated home sets a new design standard.
May 23, 2016
tread lightly australia
A family home on Australia’s Mornington Peninsula is built to blend in with its lakeside setting.
May 23, 2016
jardins party dining room hay chairs local wood floor
A pair of architects help a client carve out an oasis of calm amid São Paulo’s bustle.
May 23, 2016
hwm6zf 1
No matter where you're located or what time of the year it is, having a fireplace in your home is a treasure that’s continuously sought after. Besides the obvious benefits of keeping a fire going through the cold winter months, it can also be a cherished asset that provides an extra level of year-round comfort—not to mention how it can help define the layout of a space by acting as a sculptural element.
May 23, 2016
An office Crosby Studios designed for NGRS in Moscow
Crosby Studios just cares about the essentials.
May 22, 2016
cold sweat seattle floating sauna gocstudio
A cadre of designers let off steam after hours by building and sailing a seaworthy sauna.
May 22, 2016
in the swim off the grid campsite healdsburg california swimming pool solar heat lap pool ipe deck loll designs lounge chairs
An off-the-grid house that is little more than a decked campsite—albeit with a roof—includes a swimming pool for a family that loves to enjoy the elements.
May 21, 2016
A print by Kristina Krogh
From flat to physical, Kristina Krogh masters every dimension.
May 21, 2016
scifi
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
May 21, 2016