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Small is beautiful: Alchemy Architects' weeHouses are little, prefabricated, and getting famous

In 2002, a violinist approached architect Geoffrey Warner with a question. She had an amazing piece of land in Pepin, Wisconsin--and a very small budget. Could he possibly build something there for her and her young son?

Warner, founder of St. Paul-based Alchemy Architects, accepted the job and designed a cozy, box-like structure (with no running water or electricity). The next step would normally be for a contractor to begin construction at the site. But Warner and a team of craftsmen built the tiny home themselves--indoors--and delivered it to the site. Once an outhouse was added a few feet away, the woman and the boy moved in--and the photographers and journalists began knocking on the door of the elegant little structure.

Perched on the prairie near Lake Pepin, the 336-square-foot house drew international attention. And the experience of designing and building what amounted to a little modern cabin got Warner thinking about alternative building methods. "When we built that first one we didn't know anything about modular housing, which is probably bad of us since there had been an industry doing that for decades," admits Warner. "In Sweden, 90 percent of the houses are built that way."

Not long after that, Alchemy's weeHouse was born and the firm began working on ways to make contemporary, prefab modular housing a reality for interested buyers. "We weren't the first people to think about the advantages of building indoors, especially in Minnesota," Warner recalls. "But we've learned a lot about modular housing since then and we've changed a lot over the years as we've learned."

The Virtues of Wee-ness

Today, weeHouses make up about 50 percent of Alchemy's business. Twenty-four weeHouses (and not-so-weeHouses, as the larger models are sometimes called) have been built to date in the many factories the firm works with all over the U.S. and Canada. Standard modules are designed to Alchemy's specifications and can be stacked and joined, accented with decks and porches, or otherwise customized to fit buyers' needs and budgets. It's also possible for homeowners to work with Alchemy on hybrid homes, crosses between a traditional structure and a weeHouse.

Even when Alchemy is working on a completely traditional project some of the weeHouse processes come in handy because, as Warner puts it, "not everybody wants to choose absolutely everything. It's kind of overwhelming." He points to a barnlike house Alchemy recently worked on in Wisconsin. Though the house wasn't modular, many modular principles were used to select things like materials and finishes.

Factories are chosen for their proximity to home sites so the journey by truck is usually fairly short.  Because most of the interior finishing work, including cabinetry, is done before delivery, actual work on site is minimal. "Building houses this way really reduces the impact construction has on neighbors," says Betsy Gabler, Alchemy's marketing and business development director. Prefab, she explains, also appeals more and more to two-career couples who want to build something new, but don't have the time to supervise a custom-built project.

The Future of Prefab

While the number of people interested in contemporary prefab structures for homes and businesses has certainly grown over the last decade, Warner believes it's still too early to say that the idea has taken off. Leading the pack of hurdles that need to be overcome, he says, is that Americans just aren't used to this type of prefab housing. "Buy a prefab house now and you're still considered an 'early adopter,'" says Gabler, invoking a term that can stand for either prescience or faddishness.

Other obstacles include permitting problems and, of course, price. "Some states are much more difficult to work with when permitting houses than others," says Warner, adding that Minnesota has a fairly straightforward process while certain parts of California can be quite tough. And while weeHouses are less expensive than many design-build homes, and even homes by other prefab designers, their per-square-foot price is still pretty high. Alchemy has tried to keep prices down to make the structures accessible to people outside the upper income brackets. But Warner is honest when he says he doesn't consider weeHouses to be affordable housing.

"We invest an incredible amount of time in the design process and our goal now it to keep making houses that are better and more sustainable," he says. For prices to come down, demand will need to increase to a level where factories can turn out prefabricated structures in bulk rather than as one-offs, as they currently do. "If we could even do 10 at a time that would really help." But that won't happen, he adds, until people other than avid readers of Dwell discover what weeHouses are all about.

Wee and Green

Which brings us to Alchemy's current endeavor, figuring out how to produce modular infill housing in the next year or two in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. "We think there is a market out there," says Warner, "but people need to see more of these houses for themselves, so we're going to put ourselves out there much more."

The infill homes will be more than weeHouses; they will be based on Alchemy's "net zero" model, built so sustainably that they create as much energy as they use. As an example, Warner points to a recently completed net zero weeHouse in Moab, Utah, that includes passive solar heating, water recycling, and solar electric and thermal collectors. "It's in a remote area and it's not a fancy house at all, but we're really excited about it and we think other people will be too."

Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.

Photos, top to bottom:

Alchemy Architects craft weeHouses in their Saint Paul digs (Photo by Bill Kelley)

Geoffrey Warner, Alchemy founder and weeHouse inventor (Photo by Bill Kelley)

WeeHouses in Beartooth, Colorado, before finishing work

A four-module weeHouse in Linden Hills, Minneapolis (Photo courtesy of Ron Crofoot Photography and Andersen Windows)

A module of Alchemy's environmentally friendly "net-zero" weeHouse in Moab, Utah, being lowered into place

Inside the Moab weeHouse

WeeHouse photos courtesy Alchemy Architects, except where noted

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