Feature Story: A Dream Unboxed 

One Richmond family builds their vacation home from a kit.

With such a full life, it's easy to imagine why the couple would want to build a vacation home. But why would they want to take on something so tedious and time-consuming as building a prefab-kit home themselves — with their own hands, and with the help of family and friends?

Simply put, they were ready for a new project. "We'd just had twins, so it was, 'What do we want to take on next?'" Watson says. They'd tossed around all sorts of ideas — opening a souvenir shop, moving to Montreal, starting a concrete-statuary business.

Then Watson got a book on prefab houses. The idea of simply buying an architect's plans along with measured and cut parts to be assembled on-site intrigued her. Watson had always admired modern design; she and her husband had experience in construction; and several architects' modern prefab models were entering the market.

Soon their idea was hatched: They would build a modern prefab house as an investment, rent it out most of the year and get a family escape to boot. Prefab houses were fairly rare on the East Coast, but were starting to get a lot of attention, so the couple figured the uniqueness would work in their favor. And it would be affordable.

Still, there were reservations. Bless says he went along with the plan "kicking and dragging." But, he says, "my wife's a woman of action and I'm a man of contemplation."

With money earned from the sale of some land in Goochland, they went on a hunt for just the right plot for their new getaway. The couple hoped to find at least three wooded acres with a stream and a mountain view, situated about two hours from Richmond, yet close to family attractions. They soon discovered it was difficult to find plots between 2 and 15 acres not owned by developers and being sold off in pieces.

After four months of looking, they found what they were looking for — 6.2 acres in an Amherst County development. Their wooded plot sits on the side of a mountain, two miles from the George Washington National Forest, three miles from the Appalachian Trail, 10 miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway and near several waterfalls. The stream on the property feeds the Buffalo River, one of the last native trout streams, which they expect will attract fly fisherman. "It's kind of like a homecoming for us," Bless says. "Both our dads were from the Appalachian Mountains." Along with the view comes a variety of wildlife — deer, bear, wild turkeys, and at least one bobcat that once forced Bless to sleep in his car before the walls of the house were up.

With their property selected, they turned to choosing a kit. The pickin's were slim. Though many architects had designed modern prefab homes, most were never produced or available for purchase. Aside from some one-room kits, there were only three potential choices on the market. One wasn't available in Virginia and another was out of the family's price range. So they picked architect Rocio Romero's design for an 1,150-square-foot home. Luckily Romero's two-bedroom "LV Home" was designed in line with the Bless-Watsons' needs. And it happened to be eye-catching too.

Watson was attracted by "the design, the very simplicity of it, the openness, the windows," she says. "And it looked like it was using state-of-the-art materials."

Bless, who describes himself and his upbringing as working-class, says he identifies with the whole concept of prefab housing, making "functional, beautiful things for ordinary people."

The modern prefab movement makes sense, Bless says. Instead of requiring craftsmanship like skilled brick masonry that is no longer affordable in the States, prefab houses use mass-produced parts. The LV Home, for example, has steel siding, plywood floors and a plastic roof. "The brickwork in McMansion neighborhoods is poor," he says. "Mass production and economies of scale have always been a part of modernism." Bless believes that prefab houses help live out the "unrealized potential of modernism."

And the price is right. The kit is about $30,000. And because they were undertaking most of the labor, Bless and Watson hope to complete the home — and furnish it — at just over $100,000.

The Bless-Watsons aren't the only ones who see potential in prefab houses. During the last three years a buzz has been building about the idea. The New York Times attributes it to "consumers with high-design tastes and off-the-rack appetites" and a post-9/11 desire for a quick way to escape the city. Modular prefab can be built quickly in a factory, shipped to the property, then assembled on-site.

In October, Time magazine wrote, "Although prefabs account for less than 30 percent of new home construction, they are ushering in affordability with style." Jill Herbers, author of the book "Prefab Modern," told the magazine, "As more people discover it as an option, it will become a competitive force in the marketplace."

In another potential sign of things to come, the San Francisco-based modern home and design magazine Dwell held a competition in which architects submitted their plans for a reasonably priced modern prefab home. The winner, Resolution: 4 Architecture (whose design was the one ruled out by the Bless-Watsons as too expensive), built a house in North Carolina. An open house in July attracted 2,500 people despite a 110-degree heat index. Dwell chronicled the project in a December cover story.

Dwell editor Allison Arieff, who also wrote the book "Prefab" that sparked Watson's interest in building a kit home, attributes prefab's popularity to Americans' increased awareness of the importance of good design, along with prefab's perception of affordability.

Still, while demand and interest are great in modern prefab, not a lot has been built. But Arieff says several architects have created what seem to be viable business models. And she receives at least five e-mails a day from readers interested in building the Dwell home.

"On some days I am pessimistic," says Arieff, "as the prefab industry is very entrenched in what it already does. … But other days, most days, I am full of optimism for the future of prefab. It's easier in some regions than others, and I think that it might never be as affordable as some might hope. But I do think it offers the best hope for bringing modern architecture to the public."

When the Bless-Watsons contacted Romero about purchasing her prefab LV Home last year, the Chilean-born architect had never sold one. She had built two prototypes: one in Chile in 2000 for her parents and one in Perryville, Mo., in 2003, which serves as a U.S. model. But because she had received more than 2,000 inquiries about her design, she had started to produce a prefab kit.

As the first buyers of the LV Home, the Bless-Watsons faced a host of problems, because they're essentially the test run. The kit includes plans, instructions (a book and videotape) and parts for the exterior shell of the home. The parts include posts, beams, roof decking, hardware connectors and exterior siding — essentially everything but windows. Romero felt the exterior was the most important part to include in the kit, since it was the signature piece of her design. She also had to adapt her design to a Southeastern climate. Because the majority of prefab enthusiasts live on the West Coast, the LV Home was designed to withstand earthquakes but not a lot of snow, humidity or rain.

Romero compares her business with Dell computers: Buyers tell her what they want and she customizes each house. Then the pieces are produced and shipped in three weeks. "As I build, we learn new things and we adjust them so each one is always better than the last," she says. Romero and the Bless-Watsons say communication was important. They e-mailed each other weekly, and Romero edited her instructions when they were unclear. She says she also makes adjustments to her design when clients make suggestions that make sense. Watson, in the meantime, has been keeping a 16-part testimonial and construction journal on Romero's Web site (www.rocioromero.com/


To date, Romero has sold 10 LV Homes. Two are in construction, including the Bless-Watsons'. Because her prefab is a "kit of parts," she says, she can keep costs down. It would cost $15,000 to ship modularly; as a kit, it ships for $2,000.

Bless and Watson serve as general contractors on their project. "It's hard to say if you could do it without construction experience," Bless says. "You need to know how to read plans, order materials."

When they could, the couple tried to buy materials and hire workers locally. They also used the barter system and got family and friends to help out in exchange for time in the house. Watson's brothers, who are both in construction, led the framing process. A Richmond neighbor installed the shower. A group of University of Virginia architecture students will landscape the property as an independent study project. Others have taken care of the couple's children in exchange for time in the house, and they hope to have artists come and make some site-specific art to leave behind in exchange for a weekend getaway.

The construction has been an arduous process because kit building is less forgiving than regular construction. If one piece doesn't fit, it has to be corrected, because the rest of the pieces are precut. "There were a couple of dark weeks where I wondered if we'd get out of it," Bless says.

One difficulty was excavating and figuring out how to get the house deep enough in the hill. Because of their tight budget, the Bless-Watsons held their breath during the pouring of the foundation. If it was off, they didn't have extra money to correct it.

Indeed, the difficulty of the project has put a strain on the couple, they say. "There's been a lot of conflict," Watson says, laughing, "but we're not getting a divorce." Construction has lasted nine months and counting. The new goal for completion is mid-January, three months past schedule.

"Even though we've gone through these bleak moments, I have enjoyed the whole process," Watson says.

Now that the house is near completion and they can reflect on the process, Bless and Watson seem to have won each other over with their own way of thinking. Watson says she has learned to appreciate her husband's cautious approach. And Bless says he's thinking about doing it all over again. The next project would be easier, he suspects. Their grand plan is to buy 30 acres on a mountain and build a modern vacation community, a cluster of five prefab houses that share wells and roads.

But for now, Bless and Watson are excited about finishing by mid-January. The house is running just $7,000 over their original estimate — "not enough for us to think it wasn't worth it," Watson says.

Romero is having a stainless-steel tag printed that reads "Model 2 #1." It will be nailed to the completed house, which they're dubbing "Luminhaus" because of the way it glows at night.

"There's a peacefulness, an austerity, a simplicity," says Bless. Watson loves the striking difference between the home's industrial look and its natural surroundings. "It's like being on a porch," she says. "The indoors and outdoors blend."

Bless says he's looking forward to the day when the laundry gets done, the house gets cleaned and the kids stop getting ignored.

Watson, excited about what she and Bless have accomplished and what the kids can enjoy, says something uncharacteristic: When she sits down in the main room and looks out at the mountains, she doesn't want to get up.

Bless seems to know better: "She is truly a woman of action, so it remains to be seen if I will be able to relax up here."

For more information on Luminhaus, go to www.luminhaus.com.




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