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Afternoon coffee with: Michelle Kaufmann

by Grace Bonney

Afternoon coffee with: Michelle Kaufmann (founder/owner, Michelle Kaufmann Designs)

I first met Michelle when she and her MKD team installed the Sunset Breezehouse in the parking lot of our Menlo Park office as a display home for our annual open house event a few years ago. I was an MKD groupie immediately: by the end of the event I’d convinced her husband to gift me a “ModSquad” t-shirt—what everyone on the MKD team had been wearing at their info booth all weekend. I was enamored with the concept of Michelle’s prefab homes: making sustainable homes accessible to more people through offsite modular technology (pre-fabrication). It was the first time I’d seen eco-friendly values in a modern—and breath-taking—design. Learn more here. (Michelle also debuted her Glidehouse here at Sunset.)

Since then, Michelle’s company has continued to boom, growing to include custom home designs and community designs, along with the seven pre-configured home designs in its portfolio series. I’m currently obsessed with mkHearth—a modern farmhouse design. It fits perfectly on my fantasy acreage. (A girl can dream.)


Regular or decaf (let’s pretend it’s 2pm)? Regular, but with LOTS of milk. 1/2 coffee, 1/2 milk—it is my only way of drinking milk.

Recycling-geek, vintage-freak, or SUV-driving jock in high school? Recycling geek, for sure. I would take clothing from great uncles and aunts and mix them in with new pieces. One of a kind, unique, and fun. (Although my parents called it being “frugal”) :)

Okay, okay, now we get serious…

What was your inspiration for MKD and your mission behind it?

Back when my husband, Kevin, and I first moved to Northern California, we had what we thought was a fairly reasonable wish list when it came to the house we were looking for: something clean (with non-toxic interiors that wouldn’t make us sick), something green (with a small environmental footprint and correspondingly small utility bills!), and something affordable (we really didn’t want to give up our Friday sushi nights). Little did we know how tricky it would be to find all that in one package. After months of attending open houses, driving our real estate agent crazy, and entering into therapy in order to discover where we went so wrong in our lives that we couldn’t afford a decent home, we finally realized that the house we were searching for simply didn’t exist. It was at that point that I realized there was a huge need for more affordable green homes that just wasn’t being met, so I decided to start a firm of my own that would address that need.

(The Sunset Breezehouse)

What also influenced that decision were my experiences with Frank Gehry, for whom I’d been working for year before moving to the Bay Area. Under Gehry I witnessed over and over how deeply people could be moved and inspired by architecture (some people actually weep when they walk into his museums). It made me so proud to be an architect and a part of making that happen. But then I became so disappointed on these weekends when Kevin and I would go house hunting without finding anything designed to evoke beauty from the structure. It made me realize that we as architects can either complain about our landscapes being filled with thoughtlessly designed mcmansions, or we can actually get up and do something about it. So that’s what I set out to do by starting my firm and offering a better alternative.

What’s a new project you’re really enthused about?

We have two really exciting multifamily projects in the works right now, one in Denver and one in LA. Communities are a new arena for us, but one we’re planning to get into more deeply since it’s such a perfect fit with our firm’s mission to make thoughtfully, sustainably designed homes accessible. As opposed to single family residences, multifamily projects allow us to design a neighborhood using a holistic approach, thinking not just about the buildings but also the connecting landscape, infrastructure, and general organization. For example, one of the most important things we can achieve in a community project is well planned density. This is a huge advantage because one of the biggest problems with the housing industry has been its inclination to grow outwards, creating urban sprawl and our society’s accompanying dependency on cars, which jeopardizes the health of our landscapes, watersheds, ecosystems, and our own wellbeing as individuals.

(Denver community)

Denser communities located in or near urban centers are inherently more sustainable than sparsely populated suburban neighborhoods since they are so much closer to job centers and require less car travel. Add to that things like onsite renewable energy production, water saving landscaping that also minimizes runoff, communal open spaces like parks, playgrounds, and picnic areas, and shared resources such as community gardens, bike and car shares, and lending libraries for gardening and other tools, and you can create one super green community! That’s what were doing with both our Denver project, which should begin construction in the next month, and our LA project, which we’re beginning to design now.


Why Oakland?

First of all, where our offices are in Jack London Square is incredibly convenient in terms of transportation. We have the ferry terminal just two blocks away and we’re easily accessible via bus and BART. Honestly though, this is also a really exciting time to be in this city. Oakland, especially Downtown Oakland and Jack London Square, is experiencing a really exhilarating renaissance at the moment. A beautiful new Jack London Square mixed use expansion is scheduled to open its doors this year just down the road from us. Inside will be all sorts of new shops, restaurants, offices, and, most exciting of all, the Jack London Market, which will be the largest everyday fresh market on the West Coast, trumping even San Francisco’s Ferry Building. This neighborhood is also becoming a hot bed for the arts, with the reopening of the historical Fox Theater, which has been totally renovated and is now drawing amazing performers, and with events like the monthly Oakland Art Murmur giving support to the area’s fabulous local artists and galleries. I also love being able to see the Bay every time I look out the window. It give me a sense of connection with the water that’s at once grounding and inspiring!


What’s a new company (or idea, website, resource, etc) on your green radar you want everyone to know about? (Think: shout from the rooftops)

If I had the power to do one thing in every home in the world it would be to install an energy and water monitor like the one we have in the Smart Home: Green + Wired exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. It would not only allow people to see the details of their household’s energy and water usage but also help them to adjust their usage habits in favor of saving, both money and natural resources. For example, if people can know exactly how much more expensive it is for them to run their dishwasher during peak hours, they’re going to be less likely to do so, which will cut down what they spend on utility bills and relieve some of the stress placed on the grid during those hours. People would also be able to see where and how energy and water are just being wasted on a day to day basis and adjust accordingly. In the end, we’d all use a lot less energy and a lot less water. Plus we’d all be more sensitized to the way our everyday behavior and lifestyles impact the environment.

What’s one (or two or three) surprising thing(s) everyone can do today to make the world a more sustainable place?

To put it simply, just use less! I mean it—you’d be surprised at how keeping this mantra in mind throughout the day effects the decisions you make. Using less can mean anything from using less energy (e.g. throwing on a sweater rather than turning up the heater) and less water to buying food in bulk so that you cut down on packaging to riding your bike to work every once in a while so you use less gas or at least walking to the stores that are nearby rather than driving every single time you need to run a quick errand.

Of course, there are a lot of concrete things a person can do today to live more sustainably, like swap out incandescent bulbs for CFLs, make sure all your faucets have aerators installed (these cost as little as a buck but can cut down water flow by 50% or more!), and buy locally produced, organic food. But honestly, the key to living a more sustainable life is getting into a mindset where you’re always conscious—at least in the back of your head—about how you’re impacting the world around you and the other living things you share it with. That awareness will lead to a natural vigilance, something that is far too often missing in the everyday choices we all make, but something that isn’t at all difficult to get into the habit of once you put a little effort into it.

(PreFab Green book, by Michelle Kaufmann and Catherine Remick)

You’re an environmental hero (don’t be modest; go with it), but you’re also human. What’s your eco-confession—something that’s been hard to give up in support of a sustainable lifestyle?

Ok, so my deep dark eco-confession is that I can’t seem to kick the habit of buying plastic water bottles! I’ll be on the road or getting lunch to go and before I know it I’m walking out of the shop with yet another plastic water bottle in hand, which inevitably ends up half empty and tossed in the back of my car. I even bought a reusable Sigg bottle so that I wouldn’t need plastic bottles anyone, but I’m pretty bad at remembering to fill it up and take it with me wherever I go.

But I am committed to getting over my plastic water bottle addiction, which is why I am officially instituting a “swear jar” approach to get me there. So now, Jess, if you or anyone sees me with a plastic water bottle, you can and must demand that I fork over one dollar. That’s the penance I’ll pay for slipping up, but hopefully it won’t be necessary because this time I’m really putting a stop to this bad habit. I am making a change!

What’s your earth day wish?

For everyone to plant a tree, even if it is a seed. Can you imagine? That many new trees adding oxygen and building resources to the planet?

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  • Thanks so much for this interview! As a relatively new Oaklander (2 years and counting!), it makes me swell with pride and excitement to hear about people supporting our side of the bay with innovative businesses….can’t wait for the Jack London square expansion

  • Thanks so much for this interview! As a relatively new Oaklander (2 years and counting!), it makes me swell with pride and excitement to hear about people supporting our side of the bay with innovative businesses….can’t wait for the Jack London square expansion
    Ooops, should have said good post! Waiting for the next post!

  • Great profile! Inspiring. As a recent certified LEED AP I always enjoy seeing beautiful spaces designed using the green practices. Here’s to not seeing anymore haybale walls!

  • Can you come to Minnesota… please? I’ve been looking for a new house in the Twin Cities area. I understand your frustrations all too well of looking for affordable, green, modern design. All I seem to find are the same old cookie cutter houses with the features and trends of the era in which they were built in. (Mostly the 60’s to now where I’m looking.) Anything architecturally interesting has a huge price tag attached. I love the few prefab green homes that have popped up here, but we need more. Especially more affordable prefab green homes! Thanks for building my kind of homes… even if they’re in the wrong state! : ) I’m looking forward to checking out the book!

  • p.s.- To help you kick the waterbottle habit – try picturing each of those bottles filled about a fourth of the way with petroleum. I’ve heard that’s what it takes to produce and distribute an average bottle of water.

  • Thanks for this fun post. As a masters of architecture student it was nice to hear an architect that I admire talk speak so casually! Really enjoyed the read. Love what she is doing and hope more of us follow in Michelle’s footsteps.

  • It’s great to have an inspired architect like Michelle down in Jack London Square but I wish she had had some input in the Jack London Square expansion – its covered in huge south west facing roofs but there is not a square foot of solar in the entire project. This makes me really sad, especially when Oakland sells itself as such a green city. I think renewable power would have been a great boon for all the small and sustainable restaurateurs and food vendors they are hoping to attract.

  • our office would like to reach Ms. Kaufmann concerning the publication of her work in a coming book on prefab architecture.
    Would you be so kind, as to forward this mail to her or the writer of this interview?
    Thank you,
    Swantje Schmidt

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