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Interview: Michelle Kaufmann and Glidehouse: Chic and Green

A conversation with the architect at the forefront of moving modular prefab (and green) houses into the mainstream.

by Effie Bouras, Associate AIA
September 8, 2004

The Glidehouse is architect Michelle Kaufmann’s answer to the lack of housing alternatives – an issue that really hit home in her own frustrating and failed search for modern affordable housing in San Francisco.


At 14-by-48 feet, the overall size of a Glidehouse module is modest – a necessity, Kaufmann explains, for module(s) to fit on a flat bed truck for transportation to a building site. Clients provide the land and foundation with all site work completed by a contractor or homeowner; the house itself, available in a variety of customizable floor plans, arrives 85%-90% complete from the factory within six months of a down payment. A standard 627-square-foot one-bedroom module starts at $81,000; the cost of a 1,344-square-foot, two-bedroom option starts at $161,000. The exterior walls can be corrugated Cor-ten steel (rusted to a deep red perfection), corrugated Galvalume (sheet steel), Hardi Panels cement board, or cedar planks – depending on what would be most appropriate to a site’s surroundings. A wooden deck (optional) can accommodate a Jacuzzi. The Glidehouse’s internal organization aims to reduce clutter – “gliding” doors mask flexible storage units for everything from entertainment centers to kitchen pantries. Other features include bamboo floors, operable clerestory windows for controlled cross-ventilation, and numerous optional “green” building elements ranging from solar panels to geothermal energy.


Currently in development are two- and three-story versions of the Glidehouse, which Kaufmann describes as being more suitable to dense urban environments.


What inspired the Glidehouse?


Michelle Kaufmann: Basically, my husband and I were just looking for a place to live. The most frustrating six months of my life [began when I was] searching for a house in the Bay Area. Always being disappointed by what was available and shocked by the prices – “$600,000 for a one bedroom fixer-upper! Move fast! This deal won’t last!” We were just about to give up when we thought about the possibility of building a home. That is when I started designing a small, modern, sustainable house, with its aesthetic influenced by Japanese homes, along with Eichler and Eames, as well as the rural farm buildings from my childhood in Iowa.


Is the current market responsive to this concept?


MK: Amazingly so. I think it is really about timing. People are starting to see the benefits of both green living and modular building construction. When you put those together, it is a great combination. We had a showing on the grounds of Sunset Magazine’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, at its Celebration weekend recently, and 20,000 people toured the house, with over 400 people signing up to get started on purchasing a Glidehouse.


Do you believe potential clients view the Glidehouse as a viable living alternative to the suburban tract home, or as a compromise between a choice of an apartment and a more traditional home?


MK: So far, we have about 10 buyers in the line. All but two are looking at this as being their main house for their young families usually consisting of one or two children (for another two, it is a second, weekend house). We also have people later in their lives who want to simplify/downsize and have a healthy, clean life through sustainable design and solar, geothermal, or wind generator equipment. This can reduce, and sometimes eliminate, utility bills and widens the range of potential building sites.


In relation to context, is the Glidehouse suitable for both city and rural demands?


MK: Yes, especially the two-story Glidehouse. It works well for urban situations as well as sloped lots – which is the majority of lots in San Francisco.


How can a Glidehouse be customized for individual needs?


MK: The overall dimensions and section are simple enough that people can easily customize to make it their own, i.e. by moving some interior walls around or changing elements of the storage bar. There is a range of plan options as well. All have the same basic box configuration and details to maintain benefit of mass production, but depending on how you put the boxes together you can have an L-shape, or courtyard U-shape, or a long plan for a lot with views. There is quite a bit of flexibility so the house can be configured to fit the site and the way the owner lives.


Aside from customized layouts, are clients able to choose finishing, fixtures etc.?


MK: We have tried to do a lot of the legwork, and have come up with a palette that includes two or three finishes for each of the items that people can choose from. If they want something else, fine, we can do it. But, so far, the clients are happy with the selections we have made, and pleased that someone has done the work for them.


In what way do you see this concept developing in the future; have other projects evolved from this?


MK: I think the possibilities are endless, and others are starting to see that as well. The more the general public is educated about the benefits of modular, modern, and green buildings, the more architects will be able to make these happen.


If you were to project into the future, where do you see the Glidehouse in 10 years time?


MK: We plan to keep revising the Glidehouse projects to utilize new technology and green materials, as well as new modular building techniques. We are also going to be offering larger selections of buildings. Already we are looking at other ways to benefit from the modern, green strategy and modular combination. We are working with a developer on multiple three-story units for an urban site, as well as mixed-use residential and commercial buildings for urban infill.


How did five years working in Frank Gehry’s office influence your attitude toward design?


MK: I mainly worked on museums while I worked with Frank. The strategies for keeping a clean space with nearby accessible storage are definitely something that influenced the basic layout of the Glidehouse. The mixture of industrial materials with clean lines is also something I really enjoy in Frank’s work and influences my work as well.


Click Glidehouse for more information.


Sunset Magazine showcase Glidehouse credits:


Architect: Michelle Kaufman

Construction Management/Building Packages: Construction Resource Group, Redmond, Washington

Fabrication: Britco Group, Agassiz, BC, Canada

Deck design: Peter O. Whiteley/Sunset Magazine

Building materials: American Slate Company; Crown Industrial; Eagle Institute; Northern Pacific Sheetmetal; Raid & Wittus Fireplace; Real Goods (photovoltaic panels); Rolled Steel Products; Specialty Products; SPI; Tiger Mountain Concrete Products; Ventilation Systems, Inc. (Venmar heat recovery ventilation)

Appliances: Kohler; GE Appliances; Loewen

Furniture: Amenity; Design Within Reach; Fold Bedding; Hable Construction; Heath Ceramics; Ikea; Lotta Jansdotter; Modern Book; Offi; Propeller; RetroHome; Sushma Quilts; The Magazine Berkeley; The Gardener; Urbana Design; Wingard

Artworks: Carrie Loeb; Galya Rosenfeld; James Carrier; Chris Stokes

Decks: Sunbright Construction; TimberTech; Stone Deck West

Outdoor furnishings: Nick Williams Design (modular BBQ counter/pizza oven); Tradewind Spas/Coleman (hot tub); Fire Design (firepit); Nexo Fireplace; ColleZione (pottery); Modern Outdoor (furniture); Weber (grill)


Michelle Kaufmann, principal of mkarchitecture, specializes in residential projects as well as health and wellness facilities and restaurants/nightclubs. The Glidehouse is her first architectural design that can be mass-produced for the consumer market. mkarchitecture was recently featured on HGTV’s Designers Challenge, and has been included in many design periodicals. Prior to founding her San Francisco Bay Area-based firm, Kaufmann worked as an associate for Frank O. Gehry & Associates in Los Angeles. She is a graduate of Iowa State and Princeton Universities.


Effie Bouras, Assoc. AIA, has completed degrees in both architecture and engineering, and has worked as an intern architect in both the U.S. and Canada. While with The Stubbins Associates, she worked on notable projects such as the Guggenheim and Hermitage Museums in Las Vegas, in collaboration with the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (Rem Koolhaas) and Frank O. Gehry, and as a researcher for the book "The Adaptable Home: Designing Homes for Change" by Avi Friedman. Currently, Effie has settled in Toronto at Diamond and Schmitt Architects, but has recently taken a year off for Ph.D. studies at Arizona State University.

(click on pictures to enlarge)

(Michelle Kaufmann Designs)
Glidehouse front door (all photos of Sunset Magazine's showcase home, May 2004).

(Michelle Kaufmann Designs)
Gliding glass doors run the length of the back of the house.

(Michelle Kaufmann Designs)
Main rear deck

(Michelle Kaufmann Designs)
Main living space includes kitchen, dining area, and living room, all open to the deck.

(Michelle Kaufmann Designs)
Kitchen detail

(Michelle Kaufmann Designs)
Living room

(Michelle Kaufmann Designs)
Master bedroom

(Michelle Kaufmann Designs)
Master bedroom opens to it's own deck - with hot tub.

(Michelle Kaufmann Designs)
Exterior: master bedroom deck

(Michelle Kaufmann Designs)

(Michelle Kaufmann Designs)
Floorplan of two-bedroom showcase Glidehouse

(Michelle Kaufmann Designs)
Three-bedroom plan

(Michelle Kaufmann Designs)
Design in the works: two-story Glidehouse

(Michelle Kaufmann Designs)
Backyard view: two-story model

© 2004