You use prefabricated light-gauge steel in your buildings, Whitney. How big can they really be?
I'd say that the spaces we do can be no larger than the the hall where Dwell on Design is held in the LA Convention Center. I've been in a prefab building shed that that is 100 feet across and 500 feet long and that's a clear span. And it was all comprised of light-gauge steel components.
That's enormous. You're not making houses that big are you?
Well, I think that our system is the magic bullet for doing big prefab. With modular housing you're limited by the width of the back of the truck you put the module on, which in California is 16 feet. Now there are benefits to modular, namely that the module is ideally ready to be installed when it arrives. You can also do a flatpack house or a panelized system with structurally insulated panels, and there you can get much bigger dimensions. But if you want to go really big, then the Butler type of building system, which is what we use, is the way. Honestly, if someone comes to me and wants to do a prefab house that's under 2,000 square feet, I tend to recommend other prefab makers that I like, like the WeeHouse or Living Homes or Connect Homes.
What's the biggest building you've done, then, using the light-gauge steel construction?
We just finished a house in Palm Springs—the first Net Zero house in Palm Springs—that has a roof that is 10,000 square feet. The house is 180 feet by 60 feet and has 20 columns holding it up. You know that it gets hot in Palm Springs and we had a lot of western sun coming in that we wanted to cut down. So the first idea was a kind of mobile screen, but that was too expensive. So I called the metal building company and asked them how much it would cost to add a 20-foot overhang running the length of the building—that's 180 feet. He called me back the next day and said $9,000. That's an additional 3,600 square feet of roof for $9,000. That's $4 per square foot.
Do many residential prefab firms use this style of construction?
We're really the oddball in applying it to building. The man who invented this style of light-gauge metal building was named Butler, and if you can believe it, he actually married my great aunt. But most structures you see built this way, in places like Downey, California, are industrial.
This article was originally published on May 9, 2013 on our sister site, Dwell on Design.
Aaron writes the men's style column "The Pocket Square" for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for the New York Times, the Times Magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic and others.