"Recovering lawyer" Chris Brown and his wife, Sarah Johnson, knew what they wanted: a weekend getaway close to their home in the Washington, DC, area that could double as a by-the-night rental unit. They also wanted to have a hand in the design and construction—to go prefab without going broke. With a little bit of luck, a lot of practical acumen, and a heartening spirit of open-minded self-reliance, they got their wish: a 1,900-square-foot prefab cabin nestled in the sylvan foothills of West Virginia. Here’s their story, as told by Chris Brown.
Two years ago, we sold the Georgetown condo we’d been renting out. The idea was to take that money and create something that we—Sarah and I and our three young sons—could enjoy whenever we wanted to and that would cover its own costs.
Around this time we stayed at Luminhaus, a gorgeous Virginia prefab vacation home that piqued our curiosity and became the business model for our place. But that was a kit house, which wasn’t an option for us: It would take too long and we’d be living too far away from the site. Plus I’m a DIY novice—I know my limits.
Still, we talked a lot with Jennifer Watson of Luminhaus. Her best piece of advice: Find a place where people won’t tell you what you can and can’t do. We settled on West Virginia, where the building and inspection codes are lax. We bought 30 acres near Lost River, a thriving second-home community that grew up around a gay-run B&B called the Guest House. There’s a restaurant nearby that slings hash for hunters and truckers all week, then becomes a gay bar on Friday and Saturday nights. We loved that.
Anyway, the approval process was a breeze: I paid $250, got a building permit, the end. But we still had to figure out what to do, and with only $300,000. Again, prefab popped up.
On my birthday, we went to a colloquium at the National Building Museum. One of the presenters was Resolution: 4 Architecture. We started telling one of the owners about our ideas for a "modern cabin in the woods." I expected him to hear our budget, smile politely, and walk away. But he was enthusiastic. Res:4 saw it as a challenge: They’d never dealt with such a low-cost project before.
The initial plan we worked out with Res:4 was just this 16-by-64-foot box. But we wondered and worried, would it be comfortable or claustrophobic? Luckily, at the same time, Res:4 was building a similar house on Long Island, and they let us walk through it. That reassured us. And the truth is, if our cabin were any wider, you’d lose the way things come through it—the light, the wind, the woods—and the feeling that you’re up in the trees.
The whole idea here is to be remote but comfortable, to have a compact unit with a spaciousness that matches the surroundings. That’s when it dawned on us: A walkout basement under the prefab box would let us double the size of the house for just 50 percent more money.
In the meantime, a company called Simplex, using Res:4’s specs, assembled the prefab on their factory floor, then drove it out here. We’d installed utilities and built a driveway, which was easy. Getting the house up it? A bulldozer wound up doing the pulling. We stacked the box on the basement, then added a deck, which has doubled our living space upstairs and just made life here better—we spend half our time out there.
We also get to try things out that, living with kids, we’d never have in our house. Like the furniture: We wanted mid-century-modern style, and we found it all on Craigslist or at Ikea.
This is a cabin in the woods; it shouldn’t need to be manicured. We have a landscape architect coming as a guest, and we’ve arranged a swap: advice in exchange for time here. We’ll definitely put a Dutchtub somewhere on a crest above the house, though.
The way we did this made so much sense, given our aesthetics, experience, and budget. And even though we just opened, business has been great. The idea was to show the world—and ourselves—that this model, this idea, is possible. Every guest has been someone really interested in modern design, in prefab; a lot of them want to do this sort of thing themselves.
Besides, we can offer canary-in-a-coal-mine anecdotes on what it’s like to do a prefab rural project. While unloading the house, a woman driving by stopped to stare, incredulous. "What’s that?" she asked. "Some kind of double-wide trailer?" I just smiled and said, "Yes, it’s a double-wide."
During Jeremy Berlin's last trip to the wilds of eastern West Virginia to meet the homeowners of Tree House, his burgeoning interest in prefab got an arcadian short in the arm. It also prompted the Washington DC-based writer and editor to rethink his recent housing decision: Was taking up residence in a Fin-de-siècle Beaux Arts building the right one? The jury's still out.