Monday, May 19, 2008

weeHouse Makes Big Splash

Five years ago Stephanie Arado, a violinist with the Minnesota Orchestra, began discussing with architect Geoffrey Warner her dream of building a small, affordable home on atop a bluff in Lake Pepin, Wis. Warner embraced the challenge and went to work on a novel experiment to build a modular home for Arado and then transport it down to Lake Pepin on trucks where a team would put together the pieces.

A Star Tribune feature on the weeHouse in a 2003 generated enough interest from potential clients that Warner decided to turn the concept into a business which today falls under the rubric of his St. Paul-based firm, Alchemy Architects. The weeHouse line of prefabricated homes range in size from 350 square foot studios to 2,200 square foot, three bedroom units with price tags of anywhere from $79,000 to $245,000.

The weeHouse, blessed with a cute name and a compellingly modern boxy appearance, almost immediately captured the attention of the architectarti. In 2006, the Walker Art Center showcased the weeHouse in an exhibition on contemporary pre-fab homes, along with several California firms and the Minneapolis-based firm FlatPac Home. Soon to follow were articles in many magazines and newspapers, among them the New York Times, Dwell, MplsStPaul, TIME, Midwest Home and others.

The Macalester Groveland resident’s weeHouse line of modular homes offers simple shoebox shaped structures 14 feet wide and from 26 feet to 46 feet long. They can be set side-by-side with a deck between them or stacked on top of one another. One trademark of the line is a series of tall nearly floor-to-ceiling sliding door on one or more sides of the homes which often open on to a deck.

Buyers have plenty of siding and flooring options, though not as many as a traditional new home might have. Still, Warner notes that the weeHouse allows for plenty of customization on the exterior and within the confines of the box. Despite the prefabricated components, a typical weeHouse project still takes time to complete the planning, manufacturing to construction of the homes, he says.

“The whole process takes around nine months, though we’ve done them as fast as two to four months,” he says. The manufacturing, he adds, is done by pre-fabrication plants located in different regions around the country, reducing the distance from factory to clients’ sites.

Alchemy has built 15 weeHouses and has another 24 on the drawing board, says Warner. None exist in St. Paul, though Alchemy built one in for a client in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis. With so little land available in St. Paul, he’s not surprised a weeHouse client hasn’t stepped forward.

“We don’t want you to rip up your house and put up a weeHouse, that wouldn’t be very environmental,” he says with a grin. The majority of his clients are building weeHouses in the Hudson River Valley of New York as weekend escapes from the Big Apple or as their primary homes.

Yet despite the press interest in pre-fab homes trying to sell even cool ones in large numbers remains a daunting challenge. “If these homes were hugely popular there’d be dozens of people working in our office,” he says. “If this were really easy a lot of people would be doing it. But the whole building culture doesn’t lend itself to building this way.”

Warner, 43, grew up in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood, not from his current home, and graduated from Como High School and then earned a degree in architecture from the University of Minnesota. He worked just a few years for the Architectural Alliance in Minneapolis before winning a Dinkeloo Traveling Fellow Award, which he used to stay at the American Academy of Rome and study Carlo Scarpa, an Italian modernist who died in 1978.

For a time the disheveled-haired Warner dabbled in furniture making and fabricated materials from found objects. In the room of his office where he was interviewed slender light bulbs hung between the wires of a weathered box spring attached to a blue and white MnDOT car pool sign. Next to his chair was a metal tripod-like stand carrying a bowling ball on a bracket and a lamp attached to its apex.

Although the architect has captured plenty of interest in the weeHouse, Alchemy does business on a number of fronts. He points to a model of a proposed building for Specs Optical on Hennepin Avenue and mentions his design for a new 13,000 square foot building in northeast Minneapolis for Popular Front, an interactive agency.

A home in Clearwater he designed was highlighted as the Star Tribune’s Home of the Month in April. The home he shares with his wife, Dawn Dekeyser, an architect, and the couple’s two children, on Goodrich. The home has two smallish garages with a definite weeHouse influence.

Alchemy’s touch can be found in the building where it offices at Raymond and Hampton. Warner helped redesign the building for a host of creative tenants, including a landscaping firm and internationally renowned photographer Alex Soth, among others. Alchemy holds down the loading dock and has as windows two window-filled garage doors.

The attention paid to the weeHouse has brought other work from large companies such as Saturn, Volkswagen and Marriot, all who have tapped Alchemy for creative input on building pre-fab structures, says Warner. Yet despite the exposure the weeHouse has generated the concept of living small in a pre-fab house does not reverberate with a huge number of Americans.

In fact, Warner says, the company would be doing better in Europe, where small is embraced. For now, though, his focus is on changing the outlook for pre-fab in this country -- a significant challenge.” On our end we’re still retooling the way we do things and how we can do things better for our clients and for ourselves,” he says.

(Reprinted with permission of the Highland Villager newspaper and the author. Frank Jossi is a St. Paul-based journalist and editor.)


Betsy said...

Thanks for reprinting this online, Building Minnesota! For more information on our recent projects, wee, not-so-wee, and custom, visit us on our newly designed Web site: We're also now featuring weeWares which are the Alchemists' creative contributions. Have fun!

Anonymous said...

Modern pre-fab is such old news. The Flatpack House, Hive, WeeHouse – they've all made for great photo spreads and news stories back when the price of a traditional home was artificially inflated, but that's about it. People have been trying for decades to develop a business model that will work, but they never will. It's a relatively low-volume, high-cost proposition that requires a severe housing shortage or inflated housing prices to become even close to feasible. Now, in a buyers market mixed with skyrocketing fuel prices, production and shipping costs will rule it out as an option.