habitat opener
Image: Thomas Cobb

A rendering of the Murrays’ Ideabox (deer not included)

A simple, flat-roofed box sits as a modern version of a humble country idyll atop a hill on Patrick and Celia Murray’s land. Eventually the Vancouver couple will build a much bigger house on their 85-acre retirement plot in Polk County, but in the meantime the two-bedroom, 840-square-foot cottage, which is almost ready for move-in, seems eminently livable. With its airy plan, gleaming finishes (such as maple cabinetry and bamboo floors), and tall windows overlooking valley vineyards, it’s certainly more appealing than the standard temporary housing option: a single-wide.

Except that it is a single-wide. Note the 15-foot-wide floor plate and the steel chassis underpinning. Built on a factory assembly line and hauled on removable axles to its foundation, the Murrays’ house—the brushed-nickel bathroom fixtures notwithstanding—is, by its rightful name, a manufactured home. Its creator, Salem entrepreneur Jim Russell, calls it the Ideabox.

The slick little Oregon-made house is an intriguing new entrant in the longtime quest to mass-produce haute-design prefab housing. In the first half of the 20th century, architects began dreaming of harnessing the power of factory production to create sleek, modern homes that working-class families could afford. But futuristic visions like Le Corbusier’s cubelike 1914 Maison Domino and Buckminster Fuller’s circular 1940s Dymaxion House never got far from the draft stage, doomed by conservative popular taste and (more so) by the architects’ unfeasible production schemes. Instead, the prefab-housing industry bloomed under the leadership of profit-motivated home builders whose cheap, pseudo-traditional houses found a ready market—despite having all the visual grace of shoe boxes. By 2007, factory-built housing accounted for more than 10 percent of the single-family-housing market.

And that might have been the end of the story. But a few years ago, spurred, arguably, by advancements in design technology and a resurgent interest in midcentury-modern architecture, the image of the prefab home as an icon of stylish modern living re-emerged. Such design-minded magazines as Dwell and Sunset introduced their own models in 2005, and today the Dwell Home and the Sunset Breezehouse have been joined by the weeHouse, the Kithaus, the B-Line, the Skyline, and a seemingly endless stream of pithily named, architect-designed living spaces that can be assembled at a plant and delivered to your door. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City even mounted a show last summer to tout the past and future of prefab architecture, going as far as erecting five cutting-edge structures in its own courtyard.