City Style: Absolutely Prefabulous

A Lincoln family forgoes the traditional in favor of the retro-hip FlatPak, prefab’s most promising comeback.

Prefabricated housing—those machine-made, mass-produced homes popularized in the 1950s and still peppered throughout western Massachusetts—is experiencing a revival. At the forefront is the FlatPak, a prefab style that’s winning fans with its boxy, retro-modern design and affordable price tag. In February, the nation’s first FlatPak was completed in Lincoln, a town more commonly associated with sprawling farms, church steeples, and sturdy traditional houses, but which has actually been a hotbed of forward-looking architecture since Walter Gropius’s cube home (now a museum) went up there in 1938.

Founded and designed by Charlie Lazor, the FlatPak is distributed in partnership with Acton-based Empyrean, whose factories make every wall, window, and cabinet before packing them into a kit of up to 3,000 pieces. In this Ikea approach to homebuilding, the prefab houses aim to cut time and costs without sacrificing style. Construction can take six months to a year, and average prices range between $200 and $250 a square foot, including design, materials, and building; built from scratch, a similar house could easily cost 30 percent more. “That’s couture,” says Lazor. “What we’re doing is ready-to-wear.”

Lincoln resident and artist Amy Goodwin, for one, was eager to make the switch. Two years ago, after reading about the prototype Lazor had built in Minneapolis, she and her family decided to trade in their century-old farmhouse for a FlatPak of their own. Though the parts were predetermined, the family faced myriad decisions in customizing their 2,900-square-foot home. (Lazor describes it as a flexible system where clients can play with “a bin of Lego blocks,” mixing and matching within the floor plan.) Livening up the minimalist model, Goodwin painted the bathrooms’ glass paneling in shades of blue and orange, and her kitchen cabinets scarlet. The cement board and galvanized metal exterior has splashes of red, while opaque Polygal windows provide privacy even as they bring in lots of light. The house took a little over a year to build and cost the family an estimated $725,000—longer and higher than most, Lazor says, but appropriate considering its detailed customization. He adds that subsequent FlatPaks, including the 20 others now in progress across the country, should come together faster. As for price, that ultimately depends on how big one thinks inside the box.

Dwell Homes by Empyrean, 800-727-3325,