As the housing market collapses under the weight of the current financial crisis, it seems there may be a green lining to the whole mess. Just ask Michelle Kaufmann, who is fast becoming the face of green architecture in America.


As the founder and head of the Oakland, Calif.-based firm that bears her name, Kaufmann has recently done more to both redefine and cement the concept of eco-friendly prefabricated housing than possibly anyone in the country.


“The housing market is tanking, but green building is on the rise,” she said in a recent interview. “We’re busier than we’ve ever been.” And what’s more, she’s just getting started.



Over the past year, the
firm, which dates back to 2002, has seen its business triple. It now offers seven different types of modern, modular houses: the Glidehouse, mkLoft, mkLotus, mkSolaire, Sunset Breezehouse, Sidebreeze and mkHearth. And while a mere 34 homes have been completed to date, a whopping 475 are now in the pipeline and expected to be ready by 2010. Kaufmann says the goal is to build 10,000 such homes over the next 10 years.


“That’s when things get really interesting in terms of savings overall with energy, water and carbon emissions,” she says. “When we do 10,000 homes, our projections show that we will save 1 trillion gallons of water per year with our homes.”


Kaufmann’s eco-conscious design aesthetic can be traced back to her early years growing up in agrarian eastern Iowa, where she says she learned the importance of balancing how we live on the land. After graduating from Iowa State and going on to get her master's degree from Princeton, she worked for such luminaries as Michael Graves and Frank Gehry. When she and her husband, Kevin Cullen, started looking for a house in Northern California, they were unable to find anything affordable that they liked and nothing that was green. So Kaufmann went to work designing what would become the first Glidehouse. The emphatic response from friends and colleagues sparked a light bulb moment for Kaufmann, and the firm was born.


“I realized that it’s not just about the ‘big A architecture’ and doing museums,” she recalls, “but we, people, should be able to afford good design in their homes. And that is just not what’s out there.”


What separates Kaufmann’s designs from the pack -- and distances them light years ahead of the traditional, vinyl-sided prefab homes that can often be seen rumbling down highways across the country -- is the comprehensiveness of the green, sustainable architecture elements incorporated into them. Kaufmann’s houses are built in warehouses rather than on site, allowing for shorter construction time and a 50 percent to 75 percent reduction in overall waste.


“To think that the best way to build your home is to build it on site is like asking your car to be built in your driveway for you. It makes no sense.”


The homes feature sustainable materials such as Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood and recycled-content concrete, and they're laid out with windows, skylights and glass doors that help provide natural light and reduce energy use. Highly efficient mini-duct and radiant-floor heating systems are also used, and options like solar panels, sod-quilted roofs and rainwater catchment and gray-water reuse systems are available to complete the eco-friendly designs.


With the solar panels, owners can reach the Holy Grail of energy efficiency -- a $0 utility bill. As energy is fed back into the power grid, they can literally watch their electricity meters turn backward.


“You can sit back and drink cocktails and feel like you’re doing your part,” Kaufmann says of the technology.


But Kaufmann’s work is not restricted to single-family house designs. Her blog includes do-it-yourself videos of herself, like a green Martha Stewart, working on projects such as mud-room mats cobbled together from reused wine-bottle corks and bath rugs made from old towels, with enlightening facts such as “millions of tons of textile waste ends up in our landfills every year” thrown in. 


These projects offer green options for those who aren't in the market for a new home. “We also want people to feel inspired and have ideas of ways they can save in their existing homes.”


The firm is also working on projects such as green mixed-use developments, educational facilities and even a monastery in Big Sur, Calif.


It has a factory outside Seattle, and for now, due to the cost of transportation, the firm’s work has been focused mainly on the West Coast. But Kaufmann says they're in the process of vetting factories to partner with on the East Coast and in the Midwest, so the houses will eventually be easily obtainable for those all around the country.


“Our mission,” she says, “is to make thoughtful, sustainable design accessible.”

The green house effect
Entrepreneur Michelle Kaufmann can build your new home in half the time and with half the waste as a regular architect.