Monday, June 15, 2009

Michelle Kaufmann's Evolution of a Dream

Architect Michelle Kaufmann had a dream. She wanted to build green modular homes. Produced in factories, they would be more environmentally sound than any other factory-built homes. Over time, if enough of them were produced, they would also come down in cost.

But the housing bust had other plans for her dreams. Running into a brick wall with the credit crunch and other woes stemming from the meltdown, she had to scale back her operations. She's now onto the next phase of her dream.

Being a generous person, she also found time to write a few kind words for my "Cul-de-Sac Syndrome," which featured her work. This is what she said in her blog:

On my trip this past weekend to Denver for the CNU (Congress for New Urbanism) conference, it seemed appropriate to be reading John Wasik’s new book, “The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustinable American Dream” while I was on the plane.

Wasik is one of my favorite writers at Bloomberg and the Huffington Post.In the book, Wasik looks at many of the causes of our housing crisis as well as offers thought-provoking ideas on possible solutions through a series of interviews with thought leaders and the latest studies and statistics.

John Wasik and I have become friends and have met on a number of occasions during the past years. During some of our discussions when he was supposedly interviewing me for this book, he would ask questions and offer ideas, that in fact, I was the one who left our meetings feeling curious and inspired. In the chapter titled “Building Smarter”, Wasik focuses on the mkSolaire as the exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry titled “The Smart Home: Green + Wired”. Wasik analyzes not only the sustainable materials, systems and process, but raises many good thoughts and questions about cost and how cost and financing is so integral to planning and the result of what and how homes are built.

While I was in the plane reading the book, and nearing descent, I gazed down at the landscape below, filled with various patterns of homes and communities. Instead of seeing the roofs as asphalt or shingles, I imagined green roofs, solar, and wind generation. Rather than the kidney shape pools, I imagined swimming ponds and rain catchment gardens. I imagined different patterns of density and mass transit.

It is all possible. And it is such an interesting time to work to make it happen.

Today’s post is a heart-breaking one…
…and, yet, a hopeful one at the same time.

Despite our best efforts, the financial meltdown and plunging home values have caught
up with us. The recent closing of a factory partner as well as the gridlocked lending faced by homeowners, has proved more than our small company can bear.

The past 5 years of living this work has been a challenge. There was no path to follow, no business model to emulate. Instead, we forged our own. That comes with risks and a lot of
hard work. Yet, we and our amazing clients maintained the vision of making
thoughtful, sustainable design accessible. It has been an unbelievable collaborative effort with endless support from scores of people. This work could not have been done without so many people who believed in and were dedicated to the dream: clients, employees, investors, partners, the media, and even museums. To date, we have built around 40 single family homes. Our desks were stacked high with over one hundred homes that were slated to be built in the upcoming two years. There is no question in my mind that we were successful at the proof of concept of a smarter way to design and build the homes.

However, we have always known that to pull off our mission, it requires scale. We always believed it would be our company to do the scaling. We were well on our way to do so. However, in this current economic climate, scaling for a small company has proven to be difficult.

So now I look to the next chapter. And there will be a next chapter. The mission cannot go away. We have built something important here that is not to be lost. The underlying concept works. Healthy, efficient and well-designed homes need to be accessible for all.
We simply cannot give up on it.

It just might require a different model for scaling it. We are talking to a few larger players in the homebuilding world about potentially having them continue with our preconfigured designs like the Glidehouse®, mkLotus®, and mkSolaire®. We are discussing different methods for making this happen. The reinvention and innovation continues. While these designs are like my children (I don’t have human children – only two furry, four-legged children and these homes), it might be time for them to leave the nest and go out into the world in a new way. I am also planning to continue the dream for better, well-designed homes and also focus on sustainable communities. There is so much improvement and innovation to do in creating healthy, diverse, efficient and beautifully designed communities. There is more than one model of the American Dream.

I want to urge all of us not to give up on this mission. I look forward to hearing about all the methods that you are creating in your work, in your homes and in your lives – different models of innovation and reinvention during these difficult, yet interesting times.

I look forward to all the amazing possibilities of the next chapter for all of us.

Stay tuned…

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