At the height of the recession when most builders were losing their shirts, modular home company Stillwater Dwellings  was just getting started.

Based in Seattle, Stillwater is a modular home building company founded in 2008 by two residential architects and a custom home builder. The company’s goal is similar to other modular and prefab companies—to offer homes that are designed better, built faster, and sold cheaper than traditional stick-frame houses—but the company thinks it has found the secret to adding sustainable, modern custom design to that package for a lot less than the conventional method.

“We offer a unique combination of high-quality design, fixed upfront pricing, a straightforward design process, and reported savings between 30% and 45%,” says Matthew Stannard, the company’s CEO and a former associate of noted Seattle architecture firm Olson Kundig Architects.

Emphasizing high design, a typical Stillwater home features abundant natural light and contemporary finishes. Homes are “built using flexible, systems-based construction [that] supports a high level of design and craftsmanship, controls costs, and eliminates surprises,” the company says. Super-insulated and tightly sealed, the homes are 98% complete when delivered to the site. In addition, they include low VOC paints, dual-flush toilets, ultra-high efficiency heating and hot water systems, natural wool carpeting, wood flooring, eco-friendly Marmoleum flooring, quartz countertops, and high-efficiency low-E windows, the company says.

Modular home construction remains a hopeful dream for some builders and architects, despite unresolved issues such as transportation, delivery, and affordability that prevent the technology from gaining wider acceptance. The collapse of popular modern prefab architect Michelle Kaufmann's Michelle Kaufmann Designs has not helped. Kaufmann, who was flying high on publicity and awards, was forced to shutter her business in 2009. “Despite our best efforts, the financial meltdown and plunging home values have caught
up with us,” the architect wrote in her blog. “The recent closing of a factory partner as well as the gridlocked lending faced by homeowners has proved more than our small company can bear.”

Some architects continue to experience a measure of success, including Marmol Radziner Prefab, FlatPak, and Method Homes, among many others, but they all cater to high-end custom clients.

But Stillwater says its business model is different, offering “more than twenty homes of different sizes, based on a common and well documented set of architectural details and finishes palette,” Stannard says. “This enables Stillwater to quickly and easy make custom design modifications, produce early fixed pricing, and construct very quickly. Other high-quality prefab home companies can't offer the combination of the portfolio we have, the straightforward design modification process, and fixed upfront pricing.”

The company’s homes cost almost 50% less than a typical site-built custom home with comparable professional design, finishing materials, fixtures, and appliances, which translates to a home costing between $225 and $300 per square foot. Plus, Stannard says it offers faster occupancy times—an average of 12 months faster—than traditional custom homes.

“High-end custom residential design and construction must be one of the most inefficient industries that exist in North America,” Stannard says. “There is a reward for those companies that can streamline the process through vertical integration of the entire design and build process; Stillwater Dwellings has cracked this nut.”

With six homes under its belt and two more under construction, Stillwater Homes is still very young. But Stannard says plans are in the works to expand the operation. “We currently offer our homes in the 11 western states,” he says. “We plan to offer our homes on the East Coast in three years.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Seattle, WA.