Finding better ways of building houses has always been a part of Dwell’s mission. No more so than in 2004, when we unveiled the winner of our Dwell Home Design Invitational, a competition to create a prefabricated home that could be realized for $200,000. We went on to build the winning design for a real family. Then editor-in-chief Alison Arieff compared it to a concept car, "a unique version that sets the stage for future production models." Now, almost 18 years later, we’re drawing on that history to address the urgent need for more housing in the U.S. by putting pre-built homes into production.
The Dwell House is a 540-square-foot, one bedroom home—with a full kitchen and bath—that you can add to your backyard. It’s built off-site and delivered to your property move-in ready in a proprietary process developed by Dwell’s partner Abodu. Call it an accessory dwelling unit (ADU), a backyard house, or an in-law suite (whatever name you prefer), the Dwell House is designed to accommodate all kinds of uses—whether that’s as a guesthouse, home office, rental unit, or just more space.
Here’s how and why it came to be.
William Hanley, Editor in Chief: A single-family home on a single-family lot just doesn’t fit the way many of us live now. Working from home, multigenerational living, hosting and renting, all of these situations were becoming more and more common for people—then, the pandemic accelerated all of them. Most homes weren’t built for flexibility and that range of activity, which has made ADUs an obvious way to adapt.
It also feels like no one under 40 can afford a place to live right now, so we wondered, how can we build things that diversify the housing stock in parts of the country that are being really choked by rapidly rising prices? We always advocate for flexible homes that respond to how we really live now and greater density as one solution for the affordability crisis. It seemed like a logical extension to put our money where our mouth is and to make both a reality.
Why offsite construction was the way to go?
Zach Klein, Chief Executive Officer: Dwell helped popularize the prefab movement, not only through our coverage, but by prototyping, too. Back in 2004, when we built our first home in North Carolina, prefab was kind of a solution looking for a problem. It wasn’t cost effective for most builds in most markets, but we learned a lot and we’ve been waiting for our next turn ever since. In the last 20 years, housing costs have skyrocketed and conditions are favorable for prefab. Even if you can afford to buy a home, ultra competitive house hunts and unreliable contractors are the new norm. It’s practically a full-time job to manage the process to get more space. Suddenly, the math for building, say, a prefab home off-site, checks out in many regions.
"We’re not the first to offer a prefab ADU, but so much prefab being passed off as houses either looks like a spaceship or a tool shed." —Zach Klein, CEO
There’s something else. Architecture is perceived as expensive and elite, and I wish it wasn’t. I have the impression that if you could tap a "Buy It Now" button for more, well-designed space, a lot of people would. That provoked the challenge: Can we deliver great spaces to people and make it more affordable than doing it themselves? Then the final piece came in play: On the West Coast in particular, new ADU laws that suddenly allow hundreds of thousands of new homes to be built in and adjacent to major cities, which creates a historic opportunity for a product like this.
We’re not the first to offer a prefab ADU, but so much prefab being passed off as houses either looks like a spaceship or a tool shed. The Dwell House was designed to be a home, and it feels like one. Plus, we aim to radically redefine our customers’ expectations for what building a home feels like. No chasing down contractors, no messy red tape to manage, no expanding costs. Our partner Abodu is going to be their single point of contact and manage everything from locking in pricing, to permitting, to prepping the site, to delivery. Dwell fans expect quality, and in Abodu, I know that we have the perfect partner to deliver to help us deliver it.
What were some of the most important considerations that went into how the house looks and functions?
William: I'm so tired of blandinavian boxes. And what I’ve always liked about Norm Architects is that the even though the Copenhagen firm has a very spare, minimal, quiet style, there’s also a sense of play and personality happening. The Dwell House has a point of view. It's simple enough to fit in with a lot of different contexts and primary homes. The idea is that this looks as good behind a mission revival as it does a contemporary house, but it still has an attitude all its own in things like the shift of width in the cedar cladding, or the way the pocket doors allow the rooms to be connect to one another or not. There are lots of thoughtful things like that, and they not only make the design more attractive but make it more useful and feel great to be in.
"I’m so tired of blandinavian boxes. And what I’ve always liked about Norm Architects is that the even though the Copenhagen firm has a very spare, minimal, quiet style, there’s also a sense of play and personality happening." —William Hanley, Editor-in-Chief
The floor plan in particular is exceptionally well thought through. It’s essentially organized around two axes. The big 12-foot glass wall looks through to the equally wide kitchen backsplash. That breaks down the volume of the house, making it feel more expansive from the inside, but it also makes sure you don't have a monolithic structure in your backyard. Then, there is a spine containing the kitchen, mechanicals, and storage running along the long side of the house. This keeps back-of-house spaces concealed along another axis that also has sight lines clear through the house. It's all about creating openness.
Beyond Norm, who else contributed to the design?
William: As for the other partners, we know a lot of great design brands, so we wanted to bring in people that we knew could help make sure that we were putting the best possible house out there. We’ve worked with Bosch for many years and they’re spectacular when it comes to creating really high performance, small profile appliances. Their range performs remarkably well, and doesn’t feel like a tiny apartment set up—you could do Thanksgiving dinner at the Dwell House. We went with Real Cedar because we wanted real wood cladding, and it was obvious to work with them—they have a great consortium of mills, and the material is set up to weather really nicely (though it also comes in a black-painted finish). Marvin windows similarly pays so much attention to quality and durability—and manufactures in northern Minnesota.
As for NanaWall, who made the 12-foot bifold glass wall, we knew we wanted a strong connection between indoor and outdoor living space, and their system allowed us to have a broad expanse of glass and still have significant energy efficiency. On Dwell’s edit team, we joke all the time about the tackiness—not to mention the general annoyingness to open—of the cheap glass walls you see in shows like Selling Sunset. A NanaWall is the extreme other end of the spectrum, they’re well machined and well detailed. And of course, for the lighting, we turned to RBW, and Norm loved how their Mori pendant leant some soft curves to the space. Brendan Ravenhill's studio is a short drive from Abodu's Downtown LA Showroom. We really wanted to get a California brand in the mix, and Brendan's work fit really naturally with what Norm was doing.
As was the case with the original Dwell Home—which came in over budget and behind schedule—there are always hang-ups in the process from conception to completion.
Zach: The logistics alone pose some interesting design constraints. The house has to be delivered on a truck to your backyard, which means it has to be durable enough to travel, pass through a variety of roads, fit under overpasses, and then be lifted off the truck by a massive crane and carried over your primary home. That gives us specific dimensions to work with.
"We’ll always offer inspiration, but we’ll increasingly provide products and services to make good design attainable without the time-consuming and costly process." —Zach Klein
Also, we have to keep in mind that this is a one-size-fits-all product. It not only has to accommodate a variety of different use cases—whether it’s an apartment for an aging parent or a backyard home office—but it also needs to work in different backyard configurations and pair well with a variety of different primary homes in a variety of different neighborhoods with their own character. It also has to be suitable for the unique climates that span America and also be code compliant with as many jurisdictions as possible.
There’s a lot of design like this hidden in the Dwell House. Our partners at Abodu are leaders in the ADU space and we leaned on their experience to itemize those requirements from the outset so we could minimize the gotchas you normally encounter along the way of designing a custom home.
Though so much time has passed, the impulse and energy behind the Dwell House is the same as the original Dwell Home all those years ago.
William: Exploring better ways of building has always been an essential part of what we do. We introduced the Dwell House because we not only want to cover design that responds to contemporary life—we want to make it a reality out there in the world.
"Exploring better ways of building has always been an essential part of what we do. We introduced the Dwell House because we not only want to cover design that responds to contemporary life—we want to make it a reality out there in the world." —William Hanley
Zach: Dwell’s mission to help people make spaces that improve their lives. For two decades, we’ve done that by finding stories of great spaces and the people who made them, and amplifying those stories to inspire others to try new ideas themselves. That’s mostly how we’ve made change. But there are more direct ways we can do it. We can directly offer solutions that quicken the experience of having a space that works better for you. We’ll always offer inspiration, but we’ll increasingly provide products and services to make good design attainable without the time-consuming and costly process.
Tour Dwell’s new prefab ADU.