Local development firm hopes to turn prefab’s stigma on its head

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The luxury homes at 1516 and 1522 Foxhall Road NW will be constructed using prefabricated panels. (rendering courtesy of Teass Warren Architects)
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Most builders of prefabricated homes don’t like to highlight the way their houses were constructed, given that it’s widely seen as the cheap alternative to creating a home on-site.

But a new local company, the Dupont Circle-based Prefab Partners firm, hopes to turn that perception on its head — and to revolutionize the home-building industry.

Prefab Partners broke ground this summer on its first project: a pair of side-by-side five-bedroom homes on Foxhall Road NW — dubbed “Farmhouse Modern” — which it hopes to complete by the end of the year. The structure of the homes is being constructed in a factory, with built-in plumbing, wiring and insulation, and pieces will soon be transported to the site for a one-week assembly process. The factory utilizes a heavily automated “aerospace robotic panelization” process, and components are sealed to protect them from the elements until they’re assembled.

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According to Prefab Partners, the company’s approach ensures a higher standard of quality than homes constructed on-site.

Developers prepare to install prefabricated homes at 1516 and 1522 Foxhall Road NW, where a pair of foundations await the new luxury houses. (Brady Holt/The Current/September 2017)

Co-founder John Thompson said in an interview that he has developed many homes in D.C., which he said gave him a clear view of the various issues — from bad weather to errors in workmanship — that can affect a site-built home.

In Prefab Partners’ homes, meanwhile, “every nail is guaranteed to be in exactly the same spot that it needs to be,” Thompson said.

“We can really curate truly custom homes every single time and know we’re getting a predictable result every single time,” he said. “The consumer, the end user, really has never been given the opportunity to look at something that is this quality and consistent.”

Thompson had bought the old homes at 1516 and 1522 Foxhall Road NW a couple of years ago with plans to raze and replace them with conventional new construction — “never imagining the technology at that point,” he said. Since then, he’s teamed up with entrepreneur Steve Salis to form Prefab Partners and elected to pilot its process at the Foxhall properties.

Salis, who also co-founded the local &pizza chain and recently took over Dupont’s storied Kramerbooks & Afterwords, said he relished the idea of being a disruptive influence in the American building industry — which he said has accepted low standards for far too long.

Prefab Partners says its $1,995,000 Foxhall Road homes are superior to conventionally built alternatives. (rendering courtesy of Teass Warren Architects)

“Would you build a car that was built outside, and you knew it was raining, snowing, it was 100 degrees while someone was trying to put the steering wheel in?” Salis said. “In the home industry, that’s exactly what’s happening.”

The partners said homeowners will notice the difference over the life of their homes. Thompson said that many new homes start to develop issues with walls and floors that aren’t straight due to workmanship flaws or water damage the home incurred during construction. Prefab Partners promises a 15-year warranty on its homes’ structures.

A similar process is already popular in Europe, they said. Tammy Gale, the properties’ Washington Fine Properties broker, told The Current that several prospective buyers are in fact Europeans. But others have also shown interest in the homes’ construction method, she added.

“Once you get into explaining the process and how it works, people are really interested and get really into it,” Gale said. “They become excited very quickly when you explain how the house is built, and they understand this could really prevent a lot of issues down the road with long-term maintenance.”

Each of the new homes is listed at $1,995,000, which Salis said is in line with what buyers would pay for conventionally built homes with similar specifications. “We’re not trying to out-price the market. We’re trying to show you you can get this for X and you can get this for X, and which one would you rather have?” he said.

The properties at 1516 and 1522 Foxhall Road NW will be home to luxury prefab houses. (Brady Holt/The Current/September 2017)

Gale said she’s optimistic that the strategy will work, especially because any new home is a hot commodity in the Foxhall area. The trick, she said, will just be to ensure that buyers learn about Prefab Partners’ careful quality control.

“There is a stigma that people have in their head about what a prefabricated house is, and what we’re trying to do is educate people so they understand this isn’t a glorified sort of trailer, or modular home — that this is the real single-family home that is built with a higher quality,” Gale said. “They’ll start to understand that, and it will be a really great thing with people wanting this type of house, and it will eventually push the price up for this type of houses.”

Prefab Partners doesn’t have any other immediate homes in the works, but envisions a wide range of possible residential projects in the future — from additional luxury single-family homes to affordable housing units. “The process by which we’re going to be able to create products will allow us to be very nimble and flexible,” said Salis.

Visit pfp-foxhall.com to learn more about the two Farmhouse Modern homes on Foxhall Road and about the Prefab Partners construction process. As of this week, the homes’ foundations are in place awaiting the imminent arrival of the prefabricated sections, and both homes are still available for purchase, according to a company spokesperson.