The Long Way Home

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By Dwell and Luke Quinton / Photos by Casey Dunn
Romanced by Marfa's charms, a couple find prefab an apt solution for building in the remote desert.

The beauty of Far West Texas lies not in its lushness, but in its isolation. More than 400 miles west of San Antonio, the small, handsome town of Marfa sits in the rocky Chihuahuan Desert, backlit by two mountain ranges and a panorama of ocotillo-speckled shrub land. It’s exactly the view Don and Linda Shafer wanted. 

A third module, perpendicular to the main living areas, contains the master bedroom, which is furnished with a bed from Design Within Reach, a rug from Crate and Barrel, and a watercolor by Marfa artist Nick Terry. The saddle leather chair is by local furniture maker Garza Marfa.

A third module, perpendicular to the main living areas, contains the master bedroom, which is furnished with a bed from Design Within Reach, a rug from Crate and Barrel, and a watercolor by Marfa artist Nick Terry. The saddle leather chair is by local furniture maker Garza Marfa.

"We just had that need to live in the high desert," says Don. Before moving permanently to Texas in the late 1980s, the couple had spent years back and forth between Santa Fe and Austin, with five grandchildren spread across the two cities. Nearing retirement, they started spending time in the Big Bend region and became smitten with the landscape, but after trying their hand at desert living at a friend’s cabin in the nearby town of Marathon, they found it "a little small for us," Linda says. 

Pops of color and warm materials, like the sliding wooden barn doors from Simpson, provide a cozy contrast to the polished concrete floors throughout. 

Pops of color and warm materials, like the sliding wooden barn doors from Simpson, provide a cozy contrast to the polished concrete floors throughout. 

Marfa—where your neighbors might, with equal feasibility, be local ranchers or art-world sophisticates on holiday—skews a bit more urbane, and better met their criteria for a place with "few or no mosquitoes" and cooler climates than those in Austin. Access to a latte and The New York Times didn’t hurt, either. 

Organized around a central courtyard, the home’s three modules are oriented to maximize views of downtown Marfa; 20-foot-deep piers drilled below each concrete footing root the structure to the site and help stabilize it against West Texas winds, which can reach 120 miles per hour.

Organized around a central courtyard, the home’s three modules are oriented to maximize views of downtown Marfa; 20-foot-deep piers drilled below each concrete footing root the structure to the site and help stabilize it against West Texas winds, which can reach 120 miles per hour.

Having once restored a 200-year-old adobe in Santa Fe, the Shafers itched to complete another historic remodel and purchased a 1914 prairie-style dwelling. But as they worked with a restoration architect to unpeel renovations completed by its subsequent owners in the 1950s, crucial signs of decay and disrepair led them to take it down. 

The east-facing facade opens to an outdoor deck, which is furnished with lounge chairs by Loll Designs.

The east-facing facade opens to an outdoor deck, which is furnished with lounge chairs by Loll Designs.

Deciding to build new, they bought plans by an architect based in Taos, New Mexico. But the same isolation that lends Marfa its charm and beauty, they found, also makes for building costs that can rival those of New York City. When they saw the construction estimate creep toward $350 a square foot, those plans, too, were shelved. 

Flanked by sliding glass doors, the living room includes a Lowseat chaise longue by Patricia Urquiola for Moroso, paired with an E1027 side table by Eileen Gray.

Flanked by sliding glass doors, the living room includes a Lowseat chaise longue by Patricia Urquiola for Moroso, paired with an E1027 side table by Eileen Gray.

That’s when the Shafers found Austin-based architect Chris Krager of Ma Modular, which has specialized in prefab since 2008. After years of housing woes, the couple were drawn to the idea of having their home built in a controlled factory. The cost, even with transport expenses, was reduced significantly, to about $135 per square foot. 

Krager’s design called for building four prefab volumes: Two units would be combined to make the living room, while the other two would form the master bedroom and a detached guesthouse, creating a three-sided courtyard, and a retreat from West Texas winds. 

A series of Masters chairs by Philippe Starck and Eugeni Quitllet for Kartell enliven the dining area of Don and Linda Shafer’s hilltop prefab home in Marfa, Texas. The walnut Light Extending Table by Matthew Hilton for De La Espada straddles the black steel band "marriage line" that connects the two modules that make up the living area. Two Hope pendants by Luceplan hang overhead.

A series of Masters chairs by Philippe Starck and Eugeni Quitllet for Kartell enliven the dining area of Don and Linda Shafer’s hilltop prefab home in Marfa, Texas. The walnut Light Extending Table by Matthew Hilton for De La Espada straddles the black steel band "marriage line" that connects the two modules that make up the living area. Two Hope pendants by Luceplan hang overhead.

To build the modules, Krager looked to the firm GroundFORCE, based in Navasota, Texas, specifying precast concrete for its durability as well as for its poetic quality as both a structural and finish material. "There’s a beauty and an economy in that," he says, though the final structures were so heavy, the shipment truck blew out more than 40 tires on its eight-hour drive to Marfa.

The modules were fabricated in six weeks and assembled in one; on-site finishes took another year. At 2,475 square feet, the home carries little evidence of prefab, save for a single steel rail—the "marriage line," as Krager calls it—that runs the length of the two modules that make up the main living area. 

Heavy doors "looked too confining in the guesthouse," says Linda, so the couple opted for wooden sliding doors with translucent glass. They then outfitted the space with furnishings from Design Within Reach and bright watercolors by local Texan artists as warm counterpoints to the industrial surfaces. 

"This was definitely a custom home for them," says Krager, who cautions that while prefab isn’t a catch-all solution for every site, building modular was the cure to keeping both the construction process and costs manageable in a town as remote as Marfa.

"When we lived in Santa Fe, we thought remodeling that 200-year-old adobe was the longest, most horrible process imaginable," recalls Linda. Three designs and several years later, she’s now convinced it doesn’t compare to the challenges of building in Marfa. "But you just have to be here," she says. "You want to endure." 

Shop the Story

Garza Marfa Saddle Leather Chair
Garza Marfa Saddle Leather Chair
Based in Marfa, Texas, Garza Marfa is the husband-and-wife team of Jamey Garza and Constance Holt-Garza. Wielding backgrounds in art, design, and fabrication, the duo produces furniture and textiles inspired by the high plains and their previous life on the West Coast.
Flight Recliner
Flight Recliner
Designers Jeffrey Bernett and Nicholas Dodziuk answered the challenge of creating a recliner that didn't look like a recliner with this modern, streamlined number in 2005.
Rapson High Back Rocker
Rapson High Back Rocker
Toby Rapson, son of midcentury architect Ralph Rapson, collaborated with outdoor furniture designer and manufacturer Loll Designs to create a modern version of the Rapid Rocker.
Moroso Lowseat Chaise Longue
Moroso Lowseat Chaise Longue
Patricia Urquiola’s Lowseat Collection proves how much she takes versatility into consideration when designing furniture.
ClassiCon Adjustable Table E 1027
ClassiCon Adjustable Table E 1027
A pioneer of modern design in the 1920s and '30s, Eileen Gray created revolutionary furniture out of tubular steel. The Adjustable Table E 1027 is a side table she created in 1927 for the French Riviera retreat she built to share with her partner, architect Jean Badovici.
Luceplan Hope Suspension Light
Luceplan Hope Suspension Light
Like the 45-carat diamond that inspired the name, the Hope Pendant glitters as it multiplies and refracts light, creating a glamorous setting wherever it hangs. Unlike its namesake, however, the pendant is light and easy to assemble.
De La Espada Light Extending Table
De La Espada Light Extending Table
From De La Espada’s master woodworkers comes a solidly engineered dining table that’s just as innovative as it is striking. Created by British designer Matthew Hilton, the Light Extending Table expands smoothly to offer three different lengths—one of which can seat 12 to 14 people.