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Monday, June 15, 2009


mkSolaire by Michelle Kaufmann Designs

Part of this year's Smart Home: Green + Wired exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is Michelle Kaufmann Design's mkSolaire, a three-story prefab house built on the museum's grounds. The redesigned house (it was on display last year) is the exhibition's showcase of sustainable living, but the kudos is tempered by the recent news that Ms. Kaufmann closed her 17-person, Oakland, California-based design studio, a victim of the financial crisis.

In practice since 2004, after working with Frank Gehry and Michael Graves, Kaufmann pushed her ideals for prefab residential architecture in response to a "lack of affordable, sustainable, well-designed homes." In these five years she has completed 40 prefab houses, in a portfolio with monikers like Glidehouse, mkLoft, mkLotus, Sunset Breezehouse, and of course mkSolaire. While reducing waste in construction and embodying other benefits of prefab, the houses are most striking for their creation of outdoor spaces and their integration with the interiors.

The mkSolaire outdoor spaces are comprised of a "zen courtyard", a covered outdoor dining area, a second-floor deck off the master suite, and a sideyard patio. (Note the floor plans do not exactly reflect the mkSolaire as built at MSI, an illustration of its malleability.) These spaces encompass varying gradients of privacy and enclosure, from the front-yard zen to the covered dining. As extensions of the various indoor rooms, these spaces allow for expansion of the interior as well as for generous natural ventilation, something the whole house strives to accomplish.

Additional sustainable features include green roofs and solar panels, though it is the passive solar and natural ventilation characteristics of the design that stand out. Designed for an infill urban lot, the house sculpts itself to allow for light and air. Loft-like spaces and zen-like details complete a package that unfortunately was cut too short. But in Kaufmann's optimistic message, this may not be the end of mkSolaire and her other designs, as she talks with builders about different methods of making the prefab story continue.

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