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."