written by:
illustrated by:
January 14, 2014
Originally published in Prefab Now
Buyer Beware: A Prefab Shopper's Guide
Bay Area–based architect Michelle Kaufmann is a prefab pioneer. She started in the industry in 2003, a year and a half after Dwell’s inaugural prefab issue, just when consumer interest in sustainable, high-design, factory-built homes was finally burgeoning. She’s since built 54 prefab homes and has learned—sometimes the hard way—the challenges and risks inherent in the industry. Especially in an age of savvy marketing and slick Photoshop renderings, it is critical for clients to gather the hard facts when interviewing their potential architect or company. Here, Kaufmann presents the essential questions every consumer should ask when considering prefab.
prefan shoppers guide
“It’s easy to be in the honeymoon phase. But too often people skip important conversations, and things can go badly.” — Architect Michelle Kaufmann
Courtesy of 
Klas Ernflo
prefan shoppers guide
“It’s easy to be in the honeymoon phase. But too often people skip important conversations, and things can go badly.” — Architect Michelle Kaufmann

1— How many houses have you built?

WHY ASK? “It takes more than a single show home to know what you’re doing. I think ten is the magic number—that’s when an architect or company has seen enough and tried enough to truly know the challenges. If they’ve built less, you are signing up to be an early adopter. This can be fine, but you want to know what you’re getting into.”

2— How’s the financial health of your company and your factory?

WHY ASK? “What you want to avoid, which is one of my most painful experiences, is your factory going belly-up after they get your money. People don’t tend to talk about it, but it has happened a lot, especially in 2008 to 2010. You want to make sure that whomever you hold a contract with will deliver on the money you pay, no matter what happens with their partners—or at the very least will release your house to you if they go out of business.”

3 — Can I visit the factory?

WHY ASK? “As a client, visiting the factory helps you understand the process and gives you more of a relationship with the people building your home. If they won’t let you visit the factory, it could be a red flag: Maybe the quality isn’t there, or maybe they don’t have as strong a relation- ship with the builder as you’d like.”

4 — How soon can I move in?

WHY ASK? “Clients can have different expectations of what their company can deliver. If a schedule is very impor- tant to you, you need to work that into your agreement. Ask for a payment penalty for time delay. They may ask for additional money to guarantee a schedule, but it pushes the risk onto the company rather than yourself. You can also offer a financial incentive or bonus if they hit the target.”

5 — What’s the estimated cost, and what isn’t included in this number?

WHY ASK? “Companies will talk about the ‘predictable price’; this covers only what they can guarantee, like the factory-built components. But site costs vary widely. Ask for averages from previous projects to understand the full cost of building a prefab house. A company may promise a ‘predictable price’ of $200 per square foot, but that could rise to $400 if, say, you’re on a sloped site in the middle of nowhere without utilities.”

6 — If my project takes longer or costs more through no fault of my own, how will you handle it?

WHY ASK? “This happens less in the prefab world than with site-built projects, but it’s still important to talk through. Will they eat the cost if the project goes over budget, or at least agree to payment penalties? If budget is critical to you, push hard for a fixed price for the whole thing, rather than paying for time and materials.”

7 — Who will be my contact from your company throughout the process?

WHY ASK? “Request to have one contact all the way through, from design to construction. A home is a personal thing—you want someone who understands your values and priorities from the beginning, then helps deliver on them.”

8 — Can I have references from three previous clients?

WHY ASK? “You want honest feedback. When you talk to past clients, ask whether their expectations were met, both in terms of the quality of their finished home and the quality of the process. What would they do differently next time? Would they recommend the company to a friend?”

9 — What were the biggest challenges on past projects?

WHY ASK? “Hopefully they will be very honest about their past issues, and you can work together to overcome them on your project. Prefab has come a long way in the past ten years, but it’s still being refined. In order to keep improving, it takes as much transparency as possible. Companies and architects who address challenges head-on are the ones who knock it out of the park.”

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

img 8652 1
The city of San Francisco has been eagerly awaiting the reopening of SFMOMA for years—and as the May 14th opening approaches closer everyday, the anticipation continues to build for art enthusiasts both near and far. This morning, we were given the opportunity to explore the newly expanded space before the crowds roll in. After a series of speeches, remarks, and tours, we left the grounds feeling thoroughly inspired and excited to share what we discovered.
April 28, 2016
Renovation of 1967 Hamburg apartment with Vipp kitchen.
In our April issue, we showcased an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, with a striking, matte-black kitchen from Vipp. The 77-year-old company became famous for its iconic pedal trash can before venturing into kitchens and other tools for the home. This isn't the first time that the Danish company's products have graced our pages, and here we've gathered additional examples from our archive that show how the brand's minimalist black kitchens are always a win in modern interiors.
April 28, 2016
Zafra residence living room.
A man and his wife make an emotional return to an apartment building he loved as a kid.
April 28, 2016
the garden inside concrete dining pavilion indoor outdoor custom cabinets thermador dishwasher refrigerator
A skylit conservatory doubles as a verdant dining parlor in Sonoma County, California.
April 28, 2016
Details of the Calico collection.
Calico Wallpaper founders Nick and Rachel Cope showed us through their home in our March Issue, now step inside their studio.
April 28, 2016
william krisel pow 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
April 27, 2016
Dwell on Design and designjunction at ArtBeam
It's all part of Dwell on Design + designjunction's three-day event, featuring a program of talks chock-full of leading figures in design, architecture, urbanism, and beyond—coming up May 13-15 at ArtBeam in New York.
April 27, 2016
seattles mariners floating house prefab facade exterior fiber cement panels
A prefabricated floating home drops anchor in the Pacific Northwest.
April 27, 2016
royan treatment living room stone fireplace vintage new furnishings
French designer Florence Deau effortlessly mixes the old with the new.
April 27, 2016
modern netherlands 13 noordeinde schoolhouse parquet herringbone floors stove
Take a lesson from this school-turned-home.
April 27, 2016
The sidewalks of Copacabana in Rio De Janero, Brazil, designed by Roberto Burle Marx
The Jewish Museum in New York City takes it outside with a celebration of the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.
April 26, 2016
Waterfront home in Belvedere, California
A 1960s home infested with powderpost beetles had to be sacrificed before this this Zen-inspired house could happen.
April 26, 2016
dialogue house
At the base of Echo Mountain in Phoenix, a geometric home by Wendell Burnette opens up to the surrounding desert landscape.
April 26, 2016
street smarts kitchen full view
A creative couple transforms an old Toronto storefront in Dundas West into a home and studio.
April 26, 2016
hald strand
This architect thinks of everything for his summer escape, pizza oven included.
April 26, 2016
gans turin residence living room
Thanks to a contemporary interior that she’s been updating for a decade, modern architect Abigail Turin has learned to love her traditional 1925 San Francisco home.
April 25, 2016
Johannesburg-based design studio Counterspace was founded in 2014 by young architecture graduates Sumayya Vally, Sarah de Villiers, and Amina Kaskar. Their projects are collaborative, research-led investigations into possible futures and ideas of otherness in Johannesburg.
April 25, 2016
through living room
A second-story addition and a new indoor-outdoor focus revive a nondescript house in L.A.
April 25, 2016
Modern living room with Flexform sofa and Jens Fager candelabra
An Antwerp home blurs the boundaries between art and design.
April 25, 2016
hillside haven  1
This backyard is its own modern retreat in the Berkeley Hills.
April 25, 2016
Two studios flanks a central volume at this home in Mexico
Art and life meet in the middle at a family retreat in Central Mexico.
April 24, 2016
natural instinct swedish family home kitchen table unfold pendants muuto lilla aland chairs stolab
With Alvar Aalto in mind, a renowned Swedish architect crafts a serene home on a long-held family plot.
April 24, 2016
clearing the table coffee tables boxinbox philippe starck glas italia storage
A half-century later, furniture designers are catching up to painter Yves Klein’s visionary Table Bleue.
April 23, 2016
A deck looks out onto the beach in Australia
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
April 23, 2016
against the grain sustainable hudson new york home black walnut flooring furniture
An architect-turned-falconer considers animals and nature when designing his own home.
April 23, 2016
Aerial view of Copenhagen
@littlemycph finds symmetry in buildings and streets.
April 22, 2016
Josué Azor retuned to his family’s plot to build a new home, designed to resist future quakes and decorated with custom artwork and furniture.
In the wake of a catastrophic earthquake, a young Haitian photographer builds anew.
April 22, 2016
backyard with outdoor shower concrete pavers and wood fence
A hillside Virginia home located on a notch between two ridges is fun for the whole family.
April 22, 2016
Twin houses in Canada
Twin cabins rise together on charming Chaleur Bay in New Brunswick.
April 22, 2016
toy story industrial kitchen los angeles renovation toy lofts brass shelves steel wall hayneedle pot rack verona range
Our best reader reactions this week.
April 22, 2016