Green City: Little prefab boxes

Is this really the next wave of eco-housing?
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alerts@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Lately, I've been reacquainting myself with the sticky herbal side of green. How I turned over a new leaf after having sworn off the bud so long ago might have something to do with my recent enthrallment with Weeds, Showtime's suburban family drama about a pot-dealing mama of two, which I keep watching and rewatching on DVD.

Consequently, the opening theme, Malvina Reynolds's "Little Boxes," has gotten more stuck in my head than my Planet Unicorn ringtone or Amy Winehouse's ubiquitous tribute to inebriation, "Rehab." For those who aren't intimately familiar with Reynolds's terse 1962 folk ditty, it begins like this: "Little boxes on the hillsideThe sing-songy, childlike tune looped through my head as I made my way around a model prefab home now sitting across the street from City Hall in the Civic Center Plaza. Builders plopped down the 800-square-foot structure in just a day, in time for West Coast Green, an expo for green residential building being held this week at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Designed for ExtremeHome (www.xhllc.com), a year-old company in Oroville, and constructed mostly in a factory, the one-bedroom house costs a mere $199 per square foot, and that's with all the fancy fixings like a stereo system and rosewood floors.

The home was dubbed the mkLotus house by its designer, Michelle Kaufman Designs. The exterior is smart and sleek, with double-paned, floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding the living room and sustainably grown red balau wood and slabs of fly-ash concrete siding the back half. It certainly looked attractive enough, but as someone who spends my spare time scouring Craigslist in search of people's one-of-a-kind heirlooms to furnish my apartment, the place seemed a little too IKEA for me.

Nevertheless, prefabricated housing is all the rage these days. Who can beat the price and the prospect of actually having a finished home within months of approving a design? A number of panels on the trend took up large chunks of time at Dwell magazine's "Dwell on Design" conference Sept. 14 to 16.

According to XtremeHome CEO Tim Schmidt, without all the extras, an mkLotus could cost as little as $64,000, and he can have one good to go in less than six months. It's all very practical. Everything is energy efficient, from the interior LED lighting to the structurally integrated Styrofoam panels that make up the walls of this one- to two-person abode, to the cross-ventilation design. Varnishes use as few toxins and as little formaldehyde as possible, and the shower tile is made from a soothing green recycled glass. Energy Star, Build It Green, and the Forest Stewardship Council have all given Schmidt's models high marks.

It's said that Reynolds, a San Francisco–born folksinger, wrote "Little Boxes" about Daly City, though many associate it with Levittown, N.Y., on Long Island, the first planned community of mass-produced housing in the United States, started by the Levitt and Sons construction firm in 1947. Either way, it's clear that Reynolds, on the cusp of '60s cultural rebellion, was criticizing '50s suburban monoculture and the conformity it elicited from its little box dwellers. Anyone growing up in a subdivision can relate.

And yet many lefty locals have taken umbrage at the song's apparent elitism. "What's wrong with affordable housing?" sniped one critic in a recent Sfist.com posting, drawing the connection between the song and our south-facing neighbor.

When considering how prefab will catch on in San Francisco, where everyone is encouraged to march to his or her own beat, one wonders if '60s-era individualism will make way for Ikea-style pragmatism. These days it's just too darn expensive to be one of a kind.

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