An Interview With Blair Porteous of Sagemodern, A Custom Prefab Home Architect And Builder
Companies doing a high volume of prefab building get much of the press these days, but one increasingly segment of the prefab housing world is custom prefab. That is custom, one-of-a-kind homes made in a factory. We interviewed Blair Porteous, a principal and cofounder at sagemodern, a leading custom prefab architect and builder. Here are notes from our conversation.
Prefab Review (PR): Can you tell me about your business?
Blair Porteous (BP): We started in 2010. My partner, Paul, had actually designed a house for me in Tahoe in 2008. He was a part of MKD (Michelle Kaufmann Designs) They sold their assets to Blu Homes during the downturn and then we went into business together. Paul was the lead architect at MKD. I had a background working in technology and had worked in real estate before that.
PR: Why did you start working with prefab?
BP: It was something new that was exciting. As I learned more about it, our business took shape and we are essentially building custom homes under a roof. That has a bunch of advantages including the fact that we don’t have to break for bad weather.
PR: What do you do for a factory?
BP: We rely on existing factory partners. We know how to design and build. We are the GC on everything. We do the site work for installation as well.
PR: Location - where do you work?
BP: We most only work in Northern California, wine country, tahoe, and we are now just starting a project down south of L.A..
PR: How do customers find you?
BP: Half of our business is doing projects for developers. And half is residential for end users who find us organically or through word of mouth.
PR: How much do the houses you build cost?
BP: Cost greatly varies. We’ve had projects as high as $900 per sqft. People aren’t coming to us for cost savings. If they are, we are not the right prefab builders. $400 to $600 all-in is a typical range. We do have some outliers on the high side.
PR: How long is this process for building a home with sagemodern?
BP: Time to construction isn’t fast as all the decisions have to be made up front. You have to pick your tile up front with prefab, where as with a site-built home, you have 5 months to pick your tile. So we spend more time in the design phase than a typical architect. It’s generally a minimum of 6-9 months in the design phase and sometimes it’s more than 2 years, but in the longer circumstances, that is client driven. We could do the design phase in less than 3 months if we were building a house for ourselves.
PR: What’s exciting about the prefab home space to you right now?
BP: There are people that are trying to take it to more of a production level. Those are who are going to receive major financial rewards for their efforts. There is stuff in Poland for example for a hotel group called citizenM. That’s scale is where the industry starts to get industrial. That’s true production building which has the benefits of automated production. The efficiency gains are pretty huge. Building the same structure stick built would be lower quality and higher cost
What we are doing is very interesting because the designs are cutting edge and people can’t believe they came out of a factory. We are changing the perception that prefab is low quality. We are never going to build 1,000 homes where shaving pennies really matters.
Our company isn’t solving a major problem in the world. The higher production company could potentially solve housing issues in the world. We’re primarily a group of high end architects using a more modern approach to production.
PR: Who do you partner with?
BP: We use Method Homes predominantly. They are the only factory that can build at the quality level we are designing to. They are a custom shop.
PR: What about Plant Prefab?
BP: They are really new in the space, but we plan to use them for a Newport Beach project because of their proximity in Southern California. We had them bid on another project we’re doing at Squaw Valley as well.
PR: What else should we know about your company or the industry.
BP: We are doing a project that has 30 units at squaw valley so we’re doing some multi-family as well. Everyone is carving out their niche. Method, GreenFab, Fidelity are trying to be the builders. There aren’t that many architects doing the custom prefab homes. We are an architect and builder, so we’re the only people who do everything from end-to-end in a custom way.
Photos of some of the houses sagemodern has designed and built.