The Long Way Home

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By Dwell and Luke Quinton / Published by Dwell
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. 

The Long Way Home - Photo 1 of 6 - 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. 

The Long Way Home - Photo 2 of 6 - 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. 

The Long Way Home - Photo 3 of 6 - 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 Long Way Home - Photo 4 of 6 - 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. 

The Long Way Home - Photo 5 of 6 - 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. 

The Long Way Home - Photo 6 of 6 - 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. The Saddle Leather Chair is a blend of modern and rustic, featuring a deep cradle crafted from vegetable tanned, saddle grade American leather perched on a slim steel base. Choose from natural, chocolate, or black leather and a variety of colors for the base. The Saddle Leather Chair comes with an oval or circular seat. Photo: Casey Dunn
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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. Bernett had had experience designing ergonomic, in-flight seating for Northwest Airlines and applied the same principles to the Flight Recliner, whose slim silhouette is a far cry from the bulkiness of a traditional reclining armchair. Thanks to a patented conversion mechanism, only a slight push is needed to open up the chair through three stages of recline. Available in a multitude of fabric and leather upholstery options on a stainless steel base, the Flight Recliner is a smart accent in any living room.
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Loll Designs Rapson Rocking Chair
Loll Designs Rapson Rocking Chair
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. Part of the Rapson Collection, the Rapson Rocking Chair is made from 100 percent recycled plastic—primarily milk jugs—honoring Rapson's original design while taking advantage of contemporary materials and manufacturing processes. High back and low back versions are available, along with several color options ranging from neutral to bold. Photo: Casey Dunn
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Moroso Lowseat Chaise Longue
Moroso Lowseat Chaise Longue
Patricia Urquiola’s Lowseat Collection proves how much she takes versatility into consideration when designing furniture. Created for Moroso in 2000, the various pieces of the seating system are designed to either stand on their own or be fit together to form modular, open setups for both public and residential spaces. Available in a chaise lounge (shown here), an armchair, or multiple system configurations, the pieces are made up of injected flame-retardant foam that sits on top of stainless-steel feat. You can choose to have it covered in a variety of fabrics—which can be removed—as well as leathers.  Photo: Casey Dunn
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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. The summer home is also named E 1027, which is code for their two names intertwined: E for Eileen, and 1027 for J, B, and G. Made of black powder-coated or chome-plated steel, the table echoes the house's cantilevered form and is adjustable to fit next to a bed, chair, or sofa. The tabletop is clear crystal glass, gray smoked glass, or black lacquered metal. The iconic Adjustable Table E 1027 is part of the permanent collection at MoMA. Photo: Courtesy of ClassiCon
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Kartell Masters Chair
Kartell Masters Chair
Standing on four slim legs, the Masters Chair is roomy, comfortable, and elegant. The back of the chair is characterized by fullness and the empty spaces created by curvaceous crisscrossing lines of three different backs, which descend and merge into the edge of the seat. The Masters Chair pays homage to three contemporary design icons through a fusion of styles. Referencing the silhouettes of Arne Jacobsen's Series 7, Eero Saarinen's Tulip Armchair, and Charles and Ray Eames' Eiffel Chair, the Masters Chair is an engaging and sinuous hybrid. The set of two chairs can be used as occasional seating both indoors and outdoors, and the collection also includes corresponding bar and counter stools. 
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Luceplan Hope Pendant
Luceplan Hope Pendant
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. Designed by Francisco Gomez Paz and Paolo Rizzatto in 2009, the Hope Pendant is made of polycarbonate Fresnel lenses that have the same prismatic effect as glass does—but without the bulk and weight. Available in a variety of sizes, the Hope Pendant throws shards of light around the room and works with any type of light source. Photo: Courtesy of Luceplan
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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. With a stable tabletop made of solid wood, it holds two leaves that sit comfortably within a fabric-lined compartment when not in use. The top is placed over sculptural legs that show off the modern woodworking skills that De La Espada is known for. Crafted in Portugal, it’s available in American black walnut (shown here), American white oak, or European Ash. Photo: Courtesy of De La Espada
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