FOR THE PAST DECADE, the shelter-mag set has drooled over high-concept New Prefab homes. But while these minimalist tissue boxes—the high-selling LV series by Rocío Romero, Charlie Lazor’s FlatPak houses—have graced the pages of countless glossies, they haven’t exactly taken off locally. This, despite prefab’s green-and-lean reputation. And despite the fact that components are assembled almost entirely indoors—a big bonus in a region where rain tends to wreak havoc on building materials. But the popular prefab companies ship components all the way from the Midwest, which is costly and environmentally unsavory. Plus, their look—more Bauhaus than backwoods—doesn’t really appeal to your typical Northwest second-home buyer.
“The houses look like trailers glued together,” says John Jamnback, a Capitol Hill lawyer who recently decided to build on his Winthrop weekend property. And yet in September, Jamnback and his partner Lori Salzarulo will move into their very own prefabricated home: a two-bedroom cabin bought from Method Homes. What sold them, in the end, was an overnight trip to the company’s cedar-clad prototype at the foot of Mount Baker. “We looked around in there for something cheesy,” says Jamnback. “But it was just a beautiful place.”
Jamnback learned about Method through Tom Lenchek, a principal at Balance Associates well known for his sustainable, “mountain modern” retreats (think exposed cinder blocks and natural woods). After Lenchek described the two lines of cabins he’d designed for Method, a three-year-old prefab start-up in Seattle, Jamnback decided to go see one for himself. Stepping inside the demo, he discovered a home decked out with crunchy customizations like bamboo floors, EcoTop (recycled composite) counters, dual-flush toilets, and radiant floor heating. It was just the green-built country cabin he’d imagined.
When Method founders Brian Abramson and Mark Rylant first approached Lenchek, the architect was instantly intrigued by the opportunity to solve some of the construction conundrums of site-built projects. “We work in remote areas where workforces aren’t available,” says Lenchek. “And because of our climate, the building season in the Northwest is really short.” In places like Winthrop, where 82 inches of snow fall each year, building crews go for long periods without progress while they wait out the storms. But since the Method cabins are built indoors at a factory in Ferndale, they arrive at the site 85 to 95 percent complete, and the materials are never compromised by exposure to the elements. Lenchek says the system is well-suited to islands without ferry services, where the modular units are sent over on barges.
Then there’s the two-things-at-once factor: While construction workers are assembling John Jamnback’s cabin in Ferndale, Method’s contractor will be in Winthrop, prepping the site, excavating, and pouring the foundation. Once modules are trucked in, they’ll be pieced together within two months; Jamnback should be able to move in as early as September. “It’s simpler for the owner,” says Lenchek. Instead of finding an architect, contractor, and materials on their own, Jamnback and Salzarulo needed only flooring (they picked strand-woven bamboo), countertops (they went with laminate), and upgrades (the couple will cozy up to a Morso wood-burning stove), and they were done. “Honestly, I was happy with fewer decisions,” says Jamnback. “I didn’t want to be getting a call every day.”
But prefab is not for everyone. For one thing, though the Method team will tell you that their cabins are “entirely customizable,” there are limitations. If the building site is not accessible via a road where big trucks can travel, there’s still no way to get the components there. And while prefab homes present fewer hidden costs, the end price—$150 to $250 per square foot—is around the same as most site-built projects. But the real leap of faith for clients is trusting a company that has only one unit off the drawing board—though they do have contracts to build at least five more in 2009. “I’m pretty confident in these guys,” says Jamnback, “but call me again in August.”