RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
There's one kind of home that is still being built and sold even in this dismal housing market. Over the last decade, Rocio Romero, a young architect in Missouri, has been adding a modern architectural touch to prefab homes in bringing low prices to the realm of high design. Matt Sepic of member station KWMU in St. Louis reports.
MATT SEPIC: With its corrugated metal walls, huge windows and strong horizontal lines, Rocio Romero's house, an hour's drive from St. Louis, sits in sharp contrast to the neighboring hog barn. But step inside and the grassy, rural landscape rolls right into a bright, uncluttered interior. All the open space makes this home feel much larger than its 1,200 square feet.
Ms. ROCIO ROMERO (Architect): This is our LV. It's our standard home. So, it's two bedrooms, two baths.
SEPIC: What's not immediately obvious is much of this house was flat-packed, IKEA style, and trucked here. Romero says building her way puts the architect in full control.
Ms. ROMERO: Fabricating my components enables me to ensure that every customer is going to get the home the way that I had envisioned it.
SEPIC: Modern usually means expensive, but Romero says constructing the wall panels and other big pieces off-site saves money without sacrificing quality. Her LV house costs the same, or even less, per square foot than a plain, old, stick-built home. New York Times design columnist Allison Arieff says it's still plenty stylish.
Ms. ALLISON ARIEFF ("By Design," New York Times): It's really simple. It's really clean. And so I think what Rocio's done is create a design that's quite sophisticated, but it's certainly not overdone.
SEPIC: Leading architects like Buckminster Fuller and Frank Lloyd Wright saw the benefits of prefab decades ago, but their ideas never caught on. After World War II, a company called Lustron even tried manufacturing steel houses for returning GIs.
(Soundbite of Lustron advertisement)
Unidentified Announcer: It is in this field of home construction that the sensational idea has been proposed of turning idle airplane plants into factories.
SEPIC: Lustron failed, too, and aside from double-wide manufacturers, no one was able to find a viable business model. But Rocio Romero may have. Even in this dismal housing market, she still has about 40 active projects and hasn't had to lay anyone off. Her Web site caught the eye of Ethan Whitehill of Kansas City, who just built a vacation home in Arkansas. Whitehill says he didn't want to spend a lot of money, but he didn't want a log cabin, either.
Mr. ETHAN WHITEHILL: When you're inside, you know, the walls basically just fall away, and you just focus on what's outside.
SEPIC: Some builders like Romero's concept, too. Matthew King has put up two Romero homes in Upstate New York. He says having the house's major exterior components shipped in on a single flatbed simplifies construction.
Mr. MATTHEW KING (Home Builder): My brother and I are able to put it up by ourselves in about two weeks. But after that, then, it's just, like, pretty much building out any house. It's all custom from there on out.
SEPIC: Both of the houses King assembled were for people who wanted inexpensive second homes. And the New York Times' Allison Arieff says for now, modern prefab will likely remain a niche market. While its fan base is growing, the concept of manufactured housing can still be off-putting, reminding many people of FEMA's formaldehyde trailers. But even if Rocio Romero's prefabs won't become the next Levittown, her concepts of efficiency and quality may just catch on in a struggling housing industry desperate for innovation. For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in St. Louis.
MONTAGNE: To see what these prefab houses look like, check out our photo gallery at npr.org.