A Dallas-based developer turned manufacturer bets big on design.
Project HiFAB Haciendas
Architect Lake|Flato Architects
Structural and MEP Engineer RCS Enterprises
Environmental Health Consultant Jesse Arter
Web Design Dreamers of Day
In a section of West Dallas that has been completely transformed in recent years, newly constructed pseudo-Craftsman-style David Weekley homes dominate the neighborhood. But, if you turn down one street and go past the mass builder’s product, you are greeted by a row of simple one-story homes. The clear and uncomplicated volumes with simple stucco exteriors, relatively small in size, stand in contrast to the production homes found just down the street. Their restrained, sophisticated design is a refreshing alternative to the typical volume-based commodity and somewhat busy aesthetic of their neighbors. Two different visions for housing coexist here unironically. David Weekley’s model — now operating in full swing — represents the way housing is typically delivered in the U.S. Meanwhile, the meager grouping of haciendas, as they’re referred to in the HiFAB lexicon, are a prototype of a hopeful new housing paradigm, one that has been much discussed in recent years but that has so far not been able to be delivered to the level of initial expectations.
HiFAB is a modular construction startup that aims to create affordable, well-designed homes that are factory-built (including the slab) and installed on site. This venture is the brainchild of former Dallas developer Brent Jackson, who is collaborating with Lake|Flato Architects on the project. Jackson’s past work as a developer includes Sylvan Thirty, a mixed-use development in West Dallas that has become a much-loved neighborhood destination featuring such tenants as Cibo Divino, Tacodeli, and Cox Farms Market, among others. It was through that project that Jackson first developed his working relationship with Lake|Flato. As he began to think more and more about pivoting to housing, he reached out to Lake|Flato, knowing that the firm had previous experience with prefabricated housing through their work on the Porch Houses.
The simple and elegant Porch Houses were initially conceived to bring well-designed homes into more people’s hands, according to principal Ted Flato, FAIA. The firm had run into issues on remote sites related to the cost and availability of general contractors, and the factory-built nature of the Porch Houses mitigated some of those concerns. However, while a number of Porch Houses were deployed, the project never made it to full-scale production. “Unlike HiFAB, the factory we were working with did many other ‘house products’ as well, and we were not leveraging any of the scale advantages one gets with committing to a single product,” says Flato. In the end, the Porch Houses didn’t have a significant cost advantage over a site-built home. Since then, Lake|Flato had been pondering the issue and searching for a partner in the housing space, someone who could look at it from a business standpoint and fully realize the project. Flato says the timing felt perfect when Jackson reached out about partnering on a manufactured housing venture.
Jackson — who is also a painter and holds a B.F.A. from the University of Texas at Austin — is a believer in the necessity and business advantages of good design. He commissioned Lake|Flato to create the simple design of the homes, focusing on an efficient floor plan and building footprint, and creating exterior spaces as part of the building volume. The homes provide all the spaces one would expect in a new home but in a smaller-than-average footprint. The pleasant outdoor gravelled spaces become living areas as well, taking the place of the typical underutilized and resource-intensive lawns.
Six plan options are available for the HiFAB Haciendas (half are three-bedroom options and half two-bedroom options — all with starting prices clearly listed on the website), and they are all composed of the same building blocks: a wide open living module plus the “everything else” module(s). In each home, one enters into the living volume, which is made up of the living, kitchen, and dining areas. The bedrooms, bathrooms, storage, and utility room are contained in another module located off to the side, forming different outdoor spaces depending on their plan arrangement.
The exteriors are clad in simple stucco (available in four color options) — the windows forming the only articulation — and topped with a standing-seam metal roof. The interiors are kept very simple, with a few options provided for cabinet face style, backsplash tile pattern, countertop color, etc. The ceiling of the main living module is vaulted, and together with the white walls and ample windows, it creates a bright and uplifting space. Overall, customization options are fairly minimal, as standardization is what allows HiFAB to achieve their desired efficiency.
Brigitte Preston, a principal at the Dallas office of Perkins&Will, recently moved into one of the prototype homes and has enjoyed her experience living there. “The light in the house is fantastic,” says Preston. “The architects thoughtfully located the windows throughout the house allowing for maximum daylight to stream in throughout the day and providing framed views that focus on nature, at the same time allowing for privacy.”
Creating a well-designed home is one thing, but successfully launching a modular home startup that can produce and sell at scale is no small task. As there was little proof for the financial viability of modular homes, the effort began with a series of prototypes, and these homes now stand in West Dallas. They are not yet modular or factory-built but rather site-built to correspond to the exact dimensions of the modular designs. The idea was to first prove that there is demand for the product, and these prototypes have proven that there is indeed. With the revenue model tested and confirmed, HiFAB is now focused on ramping up their capacity, anticipating full-scale production by the end of 2023.
The factory, located in Grand Prairie and also designed by Lake|Flato, is a 42,500-sf facility in which ultimately 100 homes a year will be constructed by a team of approximately 50 people. HiFAB is serious about this. A considerable amount of time and money has gone into creating the facility and building the brand to this point. The first fully modular home built at the facility will sit behind the factory and serve as a model home for future customers. The factory’s aesthetic is crisp, minimal, and functional, as it is intended to be a continuation of the brand’s experience.
Another critical aspect of these homes — and one that adds to their value proposition — is HiFAB’s efforts to secure approvals for the homes at the state level. According to Jackson, once the state has fully signed off on the homes, the only thing the local jurisdiction needs to review and approve is the site plan and the foundation grade beam. Obviously, this will dramatically decrease local permitting review time and increase efficiency — if it works as intended. Jackson notes that other established producers of manufactured housing (think Clayton Homes, Fleetwood Homes, etc.) have paved the way from a regulatory standpoint. The HiFAB homes, however, in contrast to their mobile home predecessors, will eventually be permanently tied to an in-place grade beam, becoming fixed on the site and eligible for a traditional mortgage.
Once assembly at the factory is complete, the homes will be placed on custom-made trailers for transport to their permanent site. The whole prefabricated unit will be placed upon the site-built grade beam, with the steel C-channels that line the slab’s perimeter welded onto steel embed plates, resulting in a home that is very much tied to the ground.
So, how does this all relate to HiFAB’s desire to address housing affordability? The value proposition of modular or pre-manufactured homes is threefold and involves savings in cost, labor, and time. Savings in labor and time are achieved through factory construction by in-house staff under controlled conditions, but to achieve cost benefits, homes must be produced at scale. To do this requires large, sophisticated facilities and, not insignificantly, a lot of orders. To achieve their overall goal of providing homes that are affordable to a majority of single-family home buyers, they are initially targeting developers that are creating large volumes of homes. Only when production is operating at full scale will the costs be able to come down from their current levels, which start at $299,000 for a two-bedroom home and $399,000 for a three-bedroom home.
HiFAB’s ultimate target audience is individual single-family home buyers, with a special emphasis on providing attainable housing for first responders and a goal of eventually selling 30 percent of their homes to this group. This is personal for Jackson, who says: “I believe first responders are the backbone of our country. On a personal note, my father was a first responder, specifically in the medical field, working many nights to help people and save lives.”
With the recent cost escalations and challenges associated with construction, providing well-designed and affordable housing feels like chasing a unicorn (or a sasquatch, or a yeti — take your pick), but HiFAB’s deliberate and thoughtful process is, by all appearances, setting them up for success. As they’re still in the process of ramping up production capacity, only time will tell if they are able to achieve their ambition, but they seem well poised to do so. As Jackson puts it, “The future is here.”
Andrew Barnes, AIA, is the founder of Agent Architecture in Dallas.