When he was just 8 years old, an age at which other kids are working on seven-inch racecars for their local Pinewood Derby, Jim Russell built his first modular home. Erected on site — that is, in his parent’s driveway — the 4th grader turned a pile of scrap lumber into a travel trailer so he and his friends would have someplace cool to hang out.
“As a kid I would always build forts, and one day I decided it would be interesting to build a fort that my friends and I could move around,” said Russell, who is the founder and owner of Ideabox. Based in Salem, Oregon, the 10-year-old company specializes in the design and manufacture of prefabricated houses that are as energy efficient as they are stylish.
Russell laughs off his first foray into design but the details of that project are pretty great. Using his sisters’ two red Radio Flyer wagons as a chassis, Russell built the frame of the travel trailer out of 4’-by-4’ wood posts. He used 4’-by-8’ sheets of plywood for the walls, then made a roof out of felt. Because he and the guys would want to do some overnights, he added a nice sleeping loft with a layer of foam padding for comfort.
At the local hardware store Russell bought blinkers, the kind you can use on a bike, and attached them to the back of the trailer as turn signals. The controllers for the turn signals were mounted on the handlebars of his Stingray, which was then hooked up to to a trailer hitch at the front of the camper. With a boat battery to run the electrical system, a small camp stove for a kitchen, and his own pedal power, Russell was ready for the road. Well, almost.
“First I called the city and asked if I had to have a permit for my bicycle travel trailer,” Russell said, and laughed. The clerk he spoke with was understandably confused. “I was such a weird kid.”
Despite all the planning and attention to detail, the maiden voyage of Russell’s creation – he and his friends were headed for a park about four miles away from his house – could have gone better.
“I got the trailer down to the street and managed to get about 200 yards before all eight wheels of the red wagons got flattened,” Russell said. “My sisters were so mad.”
Cut to the present and Russell’s passion for modular housing hasn’t changed. His level of success, however, has. Dramatically. Armed with a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Colorado, experience as a project manager building huge resort complexes in Vail, and a decade heading up energy and efficiency projects at the Oregon Department of Energy and D&R Int’l, Russell founded Ideabox in 2005.
A natural next step for Russell, Ideabox blends his love of elegant design with his understanding of energy needs. His company offers homeowners the chance to build a house that’s beautiful, efficient and, miracle of miracles in the current housing market, affordable.
“What you need is a site that’s buildable, which means a solid foundation, and a way to hook into utilities,” Russell said. “We also want to know what your budget is so we can know if your project goals are realistic.”
Ideabox offers six design options of varying size and price. The 930-square-foot Confluence, with two bedrooms and two bathrooms, runs about $120,000 and is the company’s top seller. The Northwest, a genuine ‘little house’ at 400 square feet, has one bedroom and one bath. On the truly tiny end of things, Russell has finally fulfilled his 8-year-old dreams with the Mini.RV. Designed to be towed like a trailer, the Mini.RV starts at 200 square feet and, thanks to its ingenious design, can be used in off-the-grid living.
Unlike traditional mobile homes, Ideabox homes are easily customized. Homeowners are an integral part of the design process from start to finish.
“We approach things from an architectural perspective, and with the customer’s goals in mind,” Russell said. “At the beginning we don’t even talk about the specifics of the house, but about how the person plans to live in it, like are they into wine or gardening or nature or cooking.”
Once a buyer has chosen one of the Ideabox models as a starting point, Russell starts to draw. A long-time Wacom user and a fan of the Intuos, he wanted a way to adapt the technology to use with his iPad, which would allow his clients to collaborate on home designs in real time.
The answer was the Bamboo Stylus fineline, a high-precision pen that makes drawing and adapting complex architectural renderings as easy as picking up a pencil.
“Using the fineline is very creative, very simple and very fast,” Russell said. “You can draw something, hand the pen to the other person and they can draw something, and with very little fuss you come out with a completed sketch.”
The fineline’s intuitive interface lets clients get directly involved in the planning, no matter the level of their drawing skills.
“We use it in almost every client visit — we just give them the pen as we talk about their project – the views, how the wind blows, where the sun comes from, how they want to arrive, to hang out,” Russell said. “We’re not really artists in the sense of the amazing things some people are doing with Wacom products; for us it’s a story telling tool.”
Thanks to Google and 3-D technology, Russell can ‘visit’ an out-of-town customer’s property from his office in Salem to make sure the best building site has been chosen. On a recent job in New York State, Russell was able to show the homeowner that the proposed building site was unstable. He selected an alternate site, dropped the 3-D scale model into position, and the homeowner was able to see exactly how the home would look.
Unlike traditional manufactured houses, Ideabox homes are all built to meet the local codes of the states, cities and towns that they will be placed in. With high-quality materials, thoughtful design and fresh, modern style, they put the plywood-and-velour trailer trash aesthetic far, far into the rearview mirror
“I think we’ve come up with a design solution for people who want to have an affordable home and a small carbon footprint, but don’t want to sacrifice quality or design,” Russell said. “The goal was a house that’s very cool to be in, is beautiful to look at, and takes the prefab way of building to a whole new level.”
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