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Miami company makes tiny eco-friendly houses big on style

On a cross-country drive with his 11-year-old son in 2007 to install the first cabin in his new prefab building venture, Andrew Kelly passed a smallish log cabin, the kind sometimes used out West to house trading posts, gun shops or anything else that can thrive beside a highway. It was dingy, with a tar paper roof, asphalt creeping up to its porch and a soupy puddle wrapped like a moat along one side.

He took a picture and posted it on a blog he’d started to chronicle the journey. He mockingly titled it, "My Competition."

Five years later, the self-taught Miami industrial designer and his wife, furniture designer Gayle Zalduondo, are well on their way to establishing what could be Miami’s first successful eco-friendly prefab construction boutique, Cabin Fever. They’ve completed 48 cabins already — from a ferry station in Homer, Alaska to worker housing at David Copperfield’s luxurious Bahamas resort, where bookings start at $37,500 a day. Other projects under way include a San Diego campground and a Panhandle communal housing development.

In the first six months of the year, the couple say they have racked up more than $1 million in revenues and have sold about 20 small structures, including a two-story loft, a clinic and the Copperfield worker housing that Kelly was overseeing earlier this month.

“It’s forward-thinking, progressive, handcrafted, innovative and right in Miami,” said Andrew Frey, a development manager with CC Residential, Armando Codina’s multifamily venture, and land-use attorney. Frey, who has also taught at the University of Miami’s School of Architecture, is unabashedly crazy about the cabins.

“If you told people in Miami that there’s a prefab accessory structure that meets hurricane codes,” he said, “they’d go bananas.”

The cabins, constructed in a 12,000-square-foot warehouse in Little Haiti, range in size from 120 square feet to 800, and cost between $20,000 and $80,000. They can also be custom-designed for more space. Clients have used them for offices, guest quarters or even small homes. Several musicians have purchased them for backyard music studios, while one client Kelly described as an “off-the-grids, tear-up-the-credit card” type, installed a cabin in New Mexico. The place was so remote it didn’t have an address, just GPS coordinates.

Made from recycled steel that has “already been through several life cycles as cars or refrigerators,” the cabins are bright and airy, with maple veneer on the walls, exposed roof beams and clerestory windows. Those used for housing, like the ones at Copperfield’s resort, include an Ikea kitchen with butcher-block counters, a bathroom with a shower and a washer and dryer tucked in a closet. Copperfield’s personal cabin will include an extra large closet, Kelly said.

And they can be built quickly. At last year’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair, where Kelly merchandised his Zip cabin as a backyard structure, it took two workers just seven hours to erect one.

While originally designed to create extra space for existing homes, over the years they have transformed into single-family homes, an idea that Kelly continues to refine and one increasingly attractive to a new generation of homebuyers, said University of Miami architecture professor Rocco Ceo.

“People want energy efficient houses or cabins built in a way that’s more in tune with the environment in a lot of different ways,” Ceo explained. “You can’t build out of pressure-treated [wood] and then have an organic garden next to it.”

For more than two decades, Kelly and Zalduondo had run their successful furniture company, Urbanus, producing award-winning modern furniture for Room and Board, Crate and Barrel, and Ethan Allen, among others. But in 2007, tired of competing with overseas manufacturers, they sold their 30,000-square-foot Miami warehouse and shuttered their High Point, N.C. showroom to focus on a design salon in Miami’s Design District.

“We found ourselves being required to sell our product for less than 10 years earlier. And the costs were going up,” Kelly said.

So they trademarked a few of their more favorite designs, which continue to be manufactured in Alabama, and turned to structures.

“When we started in furniture, there was not good style for the masses,” Zalduondo said. “Now there’s Target and Ikea.”

They applied that idea to designing the cabins.

“Even when we were designing for Crate, and Room and Board, it was simple and well-designed. Simple not just in affordability, but in design,” Zalduondo said.

Added Kelly: “This is the next version of that.”

Walking through one of the cabins being built in their warehouse, he explains, “This is a rectangular box and without any details, it’s kind of boring. But put in the curved roof and exposed beams and with one gesture you can make an iconic structure.”

Kelly insists that for buyers, building a cabin is relatively simple. The first step is checking with the building department to see if sheds are allowed. From there, Kelly and his team take charge. They find local builders and have a staff engineer to navigate building departments. So far, he explained, Los Angeles has proved the toughest to navigate while Alaska, where approval and permitting took just two hours, the fastest.

In retrospect, that first cabin could be seen as portending good things to come. After talking to a prefab seller he discovered while flipping through a design magazine, Kelly built the 320-square-foot cabin on spec so he’d have something to photograph in sales material.

Then came a call from a landscape architect in California.

“After some conversations, I realized I had a sale,” he said.

Unprepared for such a quick transaction, Kelly had to install it himself. So he loaded up the cabin in a rented 6-ton diesel U-Haul and brought along his 11-year-old son, turning the drive into a vacation, with a boat ride down the Louisiana bayou and a visit to The Thing, Arizona’s famed roadside attraction.

When they finally arrived in Santa Monica, Kelly said he was amazed by the beauty of the house and grounds where the cabin was to be constructed: a lot almost 15,000-square-feet and just a block and a half from the Pacific Ocean. The client’s name was still a mystery since he’d only dealt with the landscape architect. But, as Kelly tells it, during the week he was installing the cabin, he cornered one of the gardeners and got him to reveal the owner’s name — Bob Dylan.

Soon enough, the orders started flowing: A ferry station for the Seldovia Tribe in Homer, Alaska; an artist studio in Pasadena, Calif.; and a vacation cabin overlooking Mount Shasta in California’s Cascade mountains.

As orders increased, Kelly added designs. He created the one-room Zip with its slanted roof and glass front, small enough, to “fly under the radar of permitting because of the size.” That first cabin, the Maxwell, with a curved roof and clerestory windows, can now be built large enough to accommodate two bedrooms and two baths. His staff also expanded, and now includes an architect, an engineer and a computer modeler.

And even though they are prefab, that does not preclude them from being personalized. Cabins built in Miami meet hurricane code while those in California can withstand earthquakes, Kelly and Zalduondo said. A mountain cabin might have more glass, to maximize the view, than an urban backyard cabin. One client has asked for a two-story loft model for a trailer park in Malibu, where a double-wide can top a million dollars and come with granite counter tops. Kelly designed another cabin for a Haiti project with a Dutch door, he said, so children could be kept in and animals kept out.

Frey, the development manager for CC Residential, sees Cabin Fever as offering solutions to two problems: the struggling home construction industry and blighted neighborhoods.

First, he pointed out, prefab is free from the constraints of the local economy.

“It doesn’t matter where demand is. This is a great business model because you’re not relying on any one geographic region’s broad-based recovery. You’re saying I’ll take my recovery where I can find it,” he said. “One of the things Miami does really well is construction and development and there are people struggling and suffering and going out of business. Everyone wants to get back to the old normal. But maybe there’s a new normal, a new system and a new ecosystem.

“Given their success, I think Mayor [Tomás] Regalado should be on their doorstep saying, ‘How can we help you? What can we do to help you grow locally?’ Do you see anyone else creating jobs in Little Haiti? These are 21st century, good, creative, solid jobs,” Frey said.

Secondly, he suggested Kelly’s inexpensive prefab structures could help revive flagging areas until the economy fully recovers.

“It’s a farfetched idea, but there’s a lot of vacant land in downtown Miami. In Park West and Overtown. And it’s vacant for a reason. People who own it are speculating long-term on much bigger buildings. But this idea of a prefab modular structure that could be inserted into the urban environment temporarily to create activity in a neighborhood and familiarity so people find it comfortable and the neighbors benefit too, because they don’t have to live next door to a huge vacant lot.”

Both Kelly and Zalduondo believe the trend in housing is ready for Cabin Fever. Since opening, they’ve outgrown their first warehouse and expanded into a neighboring bay, but have now outgrown the 12,000-square foot warehouse and are looking for a bigger space. They also want to hire additional staff, so they can boost production, increasing runs from 10 to 30 cabins over two weeks and “pivot over to 50 to 200.”

“We occupy a niche,” Kelly said, where “style, function and cost all occupy the same space. Not one over-riding the other.

“Just like the world needs a good table,” he said, “it needs a good home.”