Looking Forward to Monday Morning
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
Crawl – Walk – Run 2; the DFA HOUSE
by Daniel Frisch
Posted December 1st, 2023

After writing about our new ventures in Crawl – Walk – Run, I feel it necessary to share the story of a project we are developing that mixes residential architecture and product design.  The DFA HOUSE is a semi-pre-fab modular home concept that has been crawling along since before the pandemic.  It all started over lunch with a dear friend.  He told me the story of a lake in the Highlands of New Jersey that he and his sister own.  He told the story of how his grandfather and brothers bought a couple of thousand acres and established a fishing camp on the shores of the small lake.  They divided the lakeside lots into roughly 100parcels and leased the lots to friends and fishing afficionados.  The first generation built small cabins that were frequently passed down to heirs, along with the remaining years of the ground leases.  Over the years, many of the structures fell into disrepair, and the rent revenue was not sufficient to maintain the roads and the dam, and the tenants and my friends had come to legal loggerheads.  By the time we had lunch, the siblings and their tenants had resolved their lawsuits, and fifteen to twenty of thel ots had reverted to family ownership,  At lunch, my friend spoke lyrically and optimistically about their plans to bring the lake back to the vision of their ancestors and that they were hoping to build lakeside cottages on the properties they owned, starting with two or three in the next year or so.

And then he shared their architectural vision, homes made from salvaged shipping containers.  I was gobsmacked, as industrial detritus scattered around the shores could not be more oppositional to the vision of lake and community restoration so romantically described.  To make sure I had read this all accurately, I asked if I could join for a day trip the next time they were scheduled to visit.  A few weeks later, we drove out to the lake and then met with the town building officials about the project.  During the subsequent lunch, I asked that they abandon the shipping container concept and to let me take a shot at designing a repeatable cottage for them. Just like any project, we started with programming, and eventually fleshed out a concept that featured a simple salt-box volume with a timber frame great room and an efficient mechanical footprint.  Unfortunately, the various contractors we asked to bid did not seem to agree that the homes could be built less expensively than our portfolio of custom homes.  Either we were not communicating well, or we hadn’t found the right answer.  Without a contracting partner, and not willing to start a pre-fab house company, the project was set aside.

We had spent several months designing an ideal cottage, and another several months trying to realize these early designs.  Time investment aside, inertia set in, and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and everything was set aside.  When our team came back after the lockdowns and discussed our future goals, we couldn’t set the project aside.  We re-named the project the DFA HOUSE and started over.  New plans were drawn, the timber frame was simplified, and butter board models were built; just like as other project – except we were now designing without a specific client in mind.  We even tried to sell the vision to clients, really to anyone who thought the efficiencies gained by a pre-designed structure might satisfy their needs.  Yet, somehow, there was hesitancy on our part as well as that of potential clients.  Four years after we had started the design work for a lake in New Jersey, we were sitting around the office looking at the model and on the table was a custom home for which we were expecting to break ground.  We noticed, almost casually, that the DFA HOUSE footprint was still too large.  And we started over, again.

This time we set a new smaller center module size at thirty feet by thirty feet and kept the add-on modules to a single story.  The design work came more easily, and as they say, “third time’s the charm.”  We have crawled so long on this project; we feel somewhat like a hesitant pre-toddler just starting to walk.  But walk, we will.  We have cleared land at the north end of our property in Kent Hollow, soil testing is underway, and final site plans are being prepared for the necessary inland wetlands and zoning permits.  Working with local builders and of course our timber-framer, we will hopefully build a prototype model this coming spring.  And as we go forward, we have many people watching closely.  This version of the DFA HOUSE is set to be a Certified Passive House and will be an attainable house in that construction costs should be at least twenty-five percent lower than building custom from scratch.  Construction timelines should be even more efficient.  As we move from prototype to sales, we are planning to start a new company focused only on the development of this singular program, something I thought very unlikely when I first had lunch with my friend.

Taken together, the book(s), bathroom fixtures, fire chair and the DFA HOUSE, all confirm the crawl-walk-run model, and that inspiration comes quick, but that development without specific deadlines and client demands sometimes process at a slow and deliberate pace with pauses a many.  As for what happens next with these projects, I imagine the run mode will give us a run for our money, and other peoples’, too.