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Dwell Magazine And The Myth Of Affordable Modern Modular Housing

I give Dwell Magazine enormous credit. About 6-7 years ago they held a now-famous competition to design a high-style modular house that helped re-awaken the dream that modular housing could be both beautiful and affordable. The winners--Resolution: 4 Architecture--did just that, and my friend Joe Tanney (an old Gwathmey buddy) hasn't looked back since. They have literally sold hundreds of their elegant designs in the years since winning, and the world is better off for it. Less well-known is the fact that the average cost of a Dwell magazine modular is $250/sf or, to put it another way, no different than the low end of custom construction.

At those prices, can the Dwell revolution in modular housing ever make a difference? No. Sadly, the number of homeowners who convert will never reach critical mass, and the beautiful designs curated by Dwell will never amount to a fraction of a percent of the modular market.

Ten years ago a modular housing company my wife and I co-founded (along with Dana Bixby) called Out Of The Box Housing--or "ootbie" as we used to say--took a different approach to the problem. We were aware that a number of New England communities were compelled by law to build public housing, creating demand for modular housing designs that took the opposite approach to Dwell. Instead of standing out with striking design, these communities needed a well-mannered "background" housing solution that blended with their historic character and--perhaps most importantly--could survive the politics of a good old town brawl over what to do--aesthetically and otherwise--about affordable housing.

The solution? Modular homes inspired by the simplicity and proportions of historic New England housing, with the same attention to modern amenities and energy efficiency as the Dwell homes. It requires a bit of modesty to put these out there. They are not eye catching or "great design," nor are they meant to be. They are meant to blend in and contribute to the overall good by behaving with architectural manners--proportions, details, etc--rather than attention-grabbing panache. Their primary value is as a way to make it politically possible for the towns in need of affordable but elegant "background" housing to deliver it. It's a very specific niche, but one that has much greater importance for public space in New England than the Dwell approach can address.

What happened to Out Of The Box? Our company met an early end when our developer partner opted out before we built our first demo (oh well) but we still get 3-5 emails per week from people around the country (too far from our Pennsylvania factory sources) who want to build one. Apparently there was--and still is--a need for such an approach. The plans remain in a drawer just waiting. Any takers out there? 413-250-8800 :)