When Michelle Kaufmann designed and built a sleek, modern, and inexpensive house last year, she simply was trying to carve out a space for her and her husband, Kevin, in the pricey San Francisco real estate market. Her "Glidehouse" struck such a chord among her friends with similar financial constraints that she started her own firm, mkarchitecture, to produce the Glidehouse, joining the budding movement of modern "prefab" architecture.

The trend still focuses on residential customers -- most businesses prefer the simplicity of leasing office space in lieu of the daunting prospect of construction. The recent rise of modern prefab, however, can provide progressive companies a unique opportunity to address their space needs with intelligent, efficient, and well-designed solutions.

"Prefab" refers to the fabrication of large structural elements, like walls and roofs, in a factory; these are then assembled on-site as part of a kit, usually delivered on the back of a trailer. Some designs, like Glidehouse (about $165,000 for a 1,344-square-foot model), are shipped as fully completed modules (including plumbing and wiring), ready to be plugged into the site's foundation with minimal hassle.

With Kaufmann and Rocio Romero -- the architect who designed a prefab 1,150-square-foot two-bedroom called the LV Home -- blazing trail, business clients are beginning to see opportunity in leveraging not only the manufacturing techniques, but also the thinking they engender.

64%: Inc.com respondents who chose "good design" as more important in an office space than "function"

Timi Starkweather, managing partner in Construction Resource Group, is planning a complex with 11 retail and office units and 11 apartments in Cle Elum, Wash. "Ninety-five percent is done in a factory," she explains. "We have such a short building opportunity in the area because of the weather," she adds, that prefab was the only effective method to complete the project. Starkweather, who already has several commercial lessees when the complex opens in August, emphasizes short timelines, high quality, and lower costs as pros of going prefab.

New York architecture firm Lot-Ek, best known for its cutting-edge prefab experiments using industrial shipping containers, has recently seen an upswing in interest from business clients. They are putting the finishing touches on the Mobile Retail Unit, an innovative retail store environment composed of two truck trailers that plug into each other. The concept is that "your store can be independent of a Zip code, and you can just take it to wherever things are happening," says Lot-Ek architect Darien Monta - ez.

Leeser Architecture of Brooklyn, N.Y., is designing a forward-looking factory for bearings manufacturer Igus Inc. in Providence, R.I. Working within the client's budgetary constraints, Leeser proposed the building be clad in 10- by 30-foot concrete "smart" panels, prefabricated off-site and etched with lines like a Hershey's chocolate bar. "The lines serve as a template for a concrete cutter to cut these openings out years later," says project manager Joseph Haberl. Igus can easily cut new doors and windows in the panels as its needs change. The building can also be extended by simply adding more panels.

Perhaps more companies will consider prefab once they see how it's transforming new construction. Jill Herbers, author of Prefab Modern (Harper Design International), sees great potential in the elegant blending of efficiency, creativity, and value. "It's starting to become an everyday notion," she says. "It's going to change the whole future of housing and business."

Published on: Jul 1, 2004