a prefab housing unit with front window on a parking lot

Cassette Aims to Bring Scale to Prefab Housing—No Changes Allowed

The startup’s modular units apply the rigor of product manufacturing to the challenge of the housing crisis.

For as long as there has been architecture there have been visionaries trying to find a way to make its slow, arduous processes faster, cheaper, and more efficient. Los Angeles entrepreneur Dafna Kaplan, a veteran of both the construction and product industries, hopes hers—unlike so many before it—will stick.

two people standing in front of a prefab housing unit on the back of a truck
Cassette founder Dafna Kaplan stands next to COO Nick Butcher in front of a Cassette unit on a truck. COURTESY CASSETTE

A Different Kind of Building Startup

Last fall Kaplan formally launched Cassette, a company that creates a single product: a one-bedroom apartment pod that can stack up to six stories high into a multifamily development. Architects, developers, and others can employ the steel paneled modules as components of their projects, adding their own features like stairs, hallways, and so on. The key to making her idea work, she notes, is focus. Unlike many prefab endeavors, there is no customization and there are no change orders.

“You can’t sell it as a product if you’re asking people to custom fabricate something,” she says. “That’s not the same as scaling something like a product, where you can predict the cost, and you see the natural curve of product production, where the process improves through repetition.”

the living room area of a cassette prefab housing unit

Teaming up with chief operating officer Nick Butcher (formerly a leader at companies like Davis Langdon, AECOM, and MGAC) and boundary-pushing L.A. architects Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung, Kaplan has developed a manufacturing base that includes facilities in Singapore and Gunsan, South Korea, port cities where expertise in modular construction and shipping runs deep. Volumetric modular construction reduces waste and carbon emissions substantially, notes Kaplan, and with an efficient material and logistics strategy she’s determined to chip away at construction’s carbon footprint as well as its cost. 

An Affordable, Modular Design

Each 14-and-a-half-foot wide, 43-foot-long unit costs between $140,000 and $170,000, including delivery and installation. Supported by a combination of moment frames and post tension cables, they can be connected together both horizontally and vertically at module columns, while mechanical and electrical systems link vertically. Buyers can combine them however they choose. They can leave their walls exposed or paint murals on them. They can stack them on top of each other or next to each other. And so on.

Hodgetts, who got his start as a designer for GM, and has several patents for prefab innovations, was thrilled to get a chance to work with Kaplan and her team.

“I was always aware of the shortcomings of conventional construction,” he says. “You imagine in a more reasonable way you could do things offline; the way automobile production happens.”

the kitchen area of a cassette prefab housing unit

He and Fung have helped make what could be a boring, claustrophobic box into a case study in efficient comfort. The work has less in common with standard shipping container buildings and more in common with nautical or automotive design, or Le Corbusier’s modular experiments like Unité d’Habitation, fitting as many things as practically and gracefully as possible into the space.

To maximize the sense of space, all mechanical and electrical systems are built into the unit edges, and rooms seamlessly overlap instead of being sealed off from one another, creating borrowed space and visual connections to the outdoors. Each unit contains a wall-sized window at its far end. “Square footage isn’t all that makes a place feel big,” Kaplan offers.

More clever efficiencies and design coups abound: Cabinets sometimes work double duty, functioning on either side of walls; plumbing lines hide behind headboards so as to not decrease room size, and shelves have built-in outriggers to ease organization.

“The design was always the kind of reciprocity between three things,” notes Hodgetts. “Efficiency of production, space efficiency, and the materials and the volumetric decisions that made the space attractive and beautiful to live in. I think we achieved all three.”

“There’s a certain kind of minimalism about it. Like a tight fit. Everything is precise and closest to the millimeter,” adds Fung.

the bedroom and hallway of a cassette prefab housing unit

Can Prefab Help Solve the Housing Crisis?

For now, the only customization is the choice between a fixed or sliding edge window, but further options may evolve as Cassette’s supply chain agreements expand, says Kaplan. “We need to prove it out,” she says. “Fortunately, there are enough visionary developers that really want to do this. People want to understand how to do it.” For example, Cassette is working with development company Excelerate Housing Group to build approximately 200 units in Lancaster, California. Construction is projected to start next year.

It’s still early, but the Cassette team is hoping their plan can help make a dent in the housing crisis impacting both California and the country. “It’s disgraceful that we haven’t been able to figure this out,” says Kaplan. “We know too much about manufacturing not to take advantage of it.”

the bathroom of a cassette prefab housing unit

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