When designers Alexander and Michelle Kolbe came to the United States from Europe in 2009, they had no clients and considered themselves “nobodies” with no history of success in the United States and barely any money. Starting their architectural Design + Build firm, evoDOMUS, was challenging. The idea was born while the economy was shattered and the home market broken. Everybody thought the couple was crazy, but they believed in their goals and thought that a recession was a good time to develop a concept of exceptional homes, rather than in the heat of an economic boom. They knew they wanted to focus on prefabricated homes, but it took them a while to find the right prefab partners to build their homes to the high standards they believed in. And the next issue was finding their first clients who would take a chance with them. With confidence in their capabilities and strategies, they forged ahead. Today they are a respected participant in the U.S. prefab market. “Looking back,” they say “we realize that we are actually living the American Dream.”
In 1991 Alexander started designing homes for Huf Haus, a prefab company with several offices around Europe, and he worked with them for 20 years. Michelle, a U.S. citizen, moved to Europe, after graduating with a degree in architecture from Kent State University. She planned to stay for a year to gain some experience abroad, but became so fascinated with the post-unification enthusiasm in Berlin, she moved there in 1992, and stayed longer than she initially intended. The couple met in Berlin through work, fell in love, got married and started a family a few years later. They moved to England in 2004 and worked with Baufritz from Bavaria, a company with a holistic approach to building healthy and energy efficient homes. This experience later became the model for their own architectural prefab company. When the recession hit in 2009 in the United Staes, Michelle saw this as a chance to move back home to be closer to her family in Cleveland, Ohio, and together with Alexander start their own architectural business.
Early on in their venture, several of the houses they designed/built were site built. One early structure was a house in Columbia, where it would have been difficult to transport prefab components; there were also no prefab manufacturers in the area. Another early home was in California, where at the time they had no local relationships with manufacturers and the cost of transporting them from the East Coast would have been prohibitive. Today they have established those relationships with modular manufacturers and they now build houses all over the United States.
Although they weren’t always able to build prefab, Michelle and Alexander have always believed that the controlled environment of building a home in a factory is far superior to site building. They prefer this environment where the materials are not exposed to weather, rot and decay. They say, indoor construction allows for better control of both materials and quality, along with the ability to work with the same people continuously who understand their expectations. With prefab construction they say they are able to produce the same level of quality, wherever the house is located. Prefabrication gives them better cost control and saves their clients months of construction time.
Difference between German and American Markets
The couple says the biggest difference between the prefab market in Germany and the United States is the market share in each. About 20% of the houses in Germany are prefab built, compared to about 2% of the family houses in this country (according to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2016).
They say the disparity is due to the stigma in this country, arising from a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of terms, with people mistaking modular for manufactured homes/mobile homes. In Germany, a highly industrialized country, there is a higher acceptance of homes assembled in a factory because people appreciate the benefit of building in a controlled environment. Alexander says consumers in the United States are becoming more educated and knowledgeable and are demanding more energy efficiency in their homes, particularly those in the high-end market. Often he says he asks people if they would buy a luxury car that has been assembled outdoors, in a muddy backyard, constantly exposed to rain and frost. The answer is no, however he says many people buy million-dollar homes that are still built that way.
The couple’s commitment to building their homes to a high level of efficiency comes from their belief that “each individual has a responsibility to protect the environment with the means available to them.” Climate change, rising energy costs and the threat of health issues with VOCs and formaldehyde are additional concerns. By building energy efficient, net zero or even net positive homes (homes that generate more energy than they use) they are able to help protect the environment while providing great comfort and savings for the homeowners. Having trained in Germany, one of the leading European countries in terms of energy conservation and environmental protection, this mindset is ingrained in them and is something they wanted to continue to commit to after they moved to the United States.