by Parker Yamasaki
Photographs by Warren Chang & Leonid Furmansky
Five months ago Tom Asuquo visited Austin during SXSW and interviewed for a job with a modular home company called Kasita. He sat on the couch-cum-bed in the 352-square foot unit with Jeff Wilson, the company CEO and co-founder, and thought: “This is the future.”
Asuquo got the position and moved to Austin. As a civil engineer he deals with building permits and municipal codes. He knows how many Kasitas can be stacked on top of one another, how much it costs to install an elevator, and how many parking spots per Kasita a city requires. He knows about handicap accessibility laws, soil foundations, energy restrictions, and who to rent a crane from to lift a Kasita over your house and into your backyard. So even though he’s not from Austin, he knows how to live in Austin.
Visiting the Kasita showroom on East 4th Street the first thing one notices about “the future” is that it is small (though the company avoids using terminology associated with the popular “tiny” homes trend). It’s sleek, almost slippery. It’s got high ceilings, white finishes, and glass walls. The future has a woman’s voice and she responds to commands like “date night” and “cinema” by dimming the lights appropriately and revealing a hidden flat-screen TV from beneath the cabinetry in the living room. Amazon’s Echo comes standard in the Kasita.
But what Asuquo really means when he says that “modular homes are the future” is that they are part of a widespread dream of urban planners, designers, architects, and engineers to shift from construction to manufacturing. The Kasita is built at the company’s manufacturing headquarters in East Austin while people like Asuquo work on site planning and permitting, saving significant building times. The pieces are all there, the instructions come with the building, you just supply the lot. It’s like the difference between Lincoln Logs and Legos.
Dason Whitsett, the principal architect at Kasita, agrees. “As an architect, we all have this dream of coming up with some scheme to manufacture buildings,” he says. “I became interested in Kasita specifically because they were not just thinking about manufactured homes as a design challenge. They were thinking of the challenge as extending into the supply chain, into the government organizations, into zoning laws, and financial planning. There are all of these entrenched assumptions in each field. They saw the vertical integration of that and hired experts in every field.”
Whitsett’s point of entry into Kasita was through the insulation system. He was originally pulled into the project about a year and a half ago when Wilson asked him and his business partner to come check out some thermal factors of his new design. Whitsett and his partner figured out what needed to be done, and then started coming up with other ways to maximize efficiency, blend designs, and comply with city coding.
For Whitsett, making tweaks here and there is an ongoing process. It presents one of the biggest internal challenges for the company, the one that propels them forward and also sets them back. They are trailblazers, but they seem unsure of where they are headed. The popular sentiment around the Kasita warehouse is also a perfectionist maxim: “It can be better.”
“We’re never satisfied,” Asuquo says. “I thought I was smart; I got a master’s in civil engineering before I started working at Kasita, but I’m trying to prove myself every day here.” Whitsett mirrors this attitude. “The first bed we built was so problematic sometimes we would just describe how it worked to our viewers so we wouldn’t look like we were struggling to open it,” he laughs. Their current bed practically floats into the living room. Yet, Whitsett looks down at the table and says, “It can be better.”
So far they have permitted five different designs, but the only ones that have made it past the manufacturing doors are the two that sit on the showroom lot at East 4th Street: the “Alpha,” the first model put into production, and the “Beta,” which is open for public viewing on Thursday mornings.
Nonetheless, the company already has 134 orders from individual buyers and 124 orders from developers—people interested in building hotels, office buildings, even suburbs—that range from 20 to 300 units per order. A developer in San Diego, for example, just signed a contract for a fifteen-story Kasita hotel. A single unit (ADU, as they refer to them around the office) costs $139,000; multiple units come at a discounted $100,000 each.
With so many orders placed and not a single model out in the world, it might seem like the company is getting ahead of itself. “It’s all hands on deck right now,” Asuquo confirms, shifting his attention from our conversation in the Kasita kitchen to a woman looking for ways to use her “large lot,” to a group of four curious Austin police officers who have just entered the Kasita. He spins gracefully from interview to showman, and from answering e-mails on his iPad to quieting an incoming call from his mother. (“I’m not that guy,” he says, “but I just talked to her this morning.”) It’s not the role you would imagine the archetypal engineer to jump all over, but he hardly seems out of his element.
Whitsett says a new model in the back of their warehouse, “Charlie,” should be ready in a couple of weeks. “We can’t help it,” Asuquo says about their continuous efforts to improve the Kasita before diving into a list of international orders. “Australia e-mailed me yesterday,” he says. “There’s a wait and they know it, but most want to get the ball rolling anyways.” So yes, the customers are eager. The developers are dreaming big. And little Kasita, in East Austin, is gearing up for its big debut.
Read more from the Architecture Issue | October 2017