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Thomas Heyer of Cover Democratizes Design With Factory-Made Homes

Thomas Heyer, lead designer at Cover, shares how retooling traditional construction methods can make good design more accessible.

Thomas believes good design can be made more accessible. Heyer has been contemplating that notion since he studied architecture at Cooper Union, where Alexis Rivas and Jemuel Joseph first approached him with the concept to change the way we build. Thomas would later go on to be an early employee of Cover, a technology company that tackles the problems of traditional construction by streamlining each phase of the home-building process into an efficient, controlled, production line process. Heyer’s design ambition finds unique opportunities in mass production, harnessing a set of fully customizable kits, or “building blocks,” which are simpler and more affordable than one-off construction. 

At the helm of the company’s design, Heyer has helped shape a vision that has made Cover the leader in the prefabricated home space. Having already completed everything from simple office spaces to a standalone home in Joshua Tree, the design-driven technology and manufacturing company has since taken on more complex projects while refining its methodology along the way. Below, he shares how homes can be better made in controlled settings and the design advantages of factory-built over conventional construction.

Cover's first project, a 436-square-foot, one-bedroom unit

Tell me about your background. How did you get into design?

I’m from the Netherlands, where I studied interior architecture at the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague. After I completed my studies, I worked for a few years then went to New York to study architecture at the Cooper Union. That’s where I met Alexis Rivas and Jemuel Joseph, the founders of Cover, who approached me with this idea to change the way we build homes. I’ve always been obsessed with craftsmanship in architecture and design so the idea of prefabrication and design for manufacturing took some convincing on their part to get me on board. I quickly realized that getting this right would open up design opportunities—especially in residential architecture—that simply aren’t possible when building the traditional way. Historically, prefabs had and still have many of the same flaws of conventional construction. With Cover, we are able to tackle these problems from the ground up.

Can you give me an example of the kind of problems conventional prefab has had with residential construction?

Many prefab companies don’t provide the customizability that conventional construction is known for. Prefabs today are usually model homes. They mostly take the way we conventionally build, and move those processes into the factory, but don’t really take advantage of the factory environment to change how we build. We wanted to use the opportunities that the factory environment offers to actually reinvent the building process and, for example, not just do two-by-four stick framing, which is what’s done on-site. 

How does designing homes for mass production differ from one-off homes? How is that mindset different from that of an architect or a product designer? 

When designing one-offs, you often rely on highly skilled people to create them. That often results in beautiful design, but it’s an expensive process and doesn’t scale. Designing for mass production requires a shift in thinking about detailing and construction methods, but you have tools at your disposal that aren’t available when making one-offs. For example, if you want flush outlets without faceplates, you can do it with manual labor on site. But if you can control both the manufacturing of the wall panel and the outlet from the factory, you can design an integration where the interface between both is simpler and more affordable to produce.

A small 120-square-foot artist studio
Custom window frames with magnetic locking mechanism

What does it look like on the back end? Do you have a set of modular components that you pair together based on certain aspects like square footage and MEP? 

We have a kit of parts and our building system is panelized and works on a grid system. Our kit of parts allows us to create a virtually infinite set of floor plans with a finite set of building blocks. The customer has full customizability in terms of the layout, the windows, the amount of integrated storage, and the configuration of the kitchen and the bathrooms. It’s completely tailored to their needs and the site conditions. 

What makes a good prefab design? 

Good prefab design uses the equipment and processes possible with precision manufacturing to improve the quality of the end product, but also make it accessible to a larger population through more efficient mass production. We build differently because our factory environment allows us to do so. We don’t stop at just the structure—our building system takes everything into account from plumbing and HVAC all the way down to the finishes and final details that clients ultimately see and touch. It integrates different components where the real challenges lie. For example, our window frames, which we designed in-house sit fully integrated within the walls and surrounding finishes.

How long does it take to realize a project from concept to completion?

If you purchased a Cover design today, it would take about 9 to 11 months until completion. Most of this time is because we have a growing backlog of orders we’re ramping up production to fulfill. The time we’re in someone’s backyard is typically two to four months, with most time spent on utility trenching and foundation work. The installation of the Cover itself is just over a month.

Cover's first project with a kitchen was designed to look and feel very minimal
Exposed wood in cabinet interiors with light switches and outlets incorporated in the backsplash

Are there a few projects that stand out in the evolution of Cover’s technologies, methodologies, and practices? 

Our first few projects were simple office spaces, without a kitchen or bathroom. These projects were important first steps for us as they validated our panelized building system. For example, a small 120-square-foot artist studio marked a significant step as it introduced our own custom window frames with magnetic locking mechanism. Bringing the window design and manufacturing in-house meant that we were able to control the design, manufacturing, and install much better, allowing for a level of integration that wouldn’t have been possible with an outside manufacturer.

Our first project with a kitchen and bathroom was also a milestone. This was a 436-square-foot,  one-bedroom unit that we installed in a backyard in Mid-City, Los Angeles, at the end of 2018. The kitchen was designed to look and feel very minimal until you interact with it, at which point it reveals its functionality and materiality: exposed wood in the cabinet interiors, or the light switches and outlets incorporated in the backsplash.

Since then, projects have become larger and more complex, and we have been refining our detailing every time. For example, in a home office in the Hollywood Hills we expanded on our window design by integrating both exterior lighting and interior shades. We also expanded on our cabinetry system with an integrated Murphy bed.

There are the milestones that aren’t as apparent when just looking at our units. Many of our improvements happen within our design and manufacturing processes. One example is the automated work instructions that allow our technicians to manufacture and install our product quickly, even though all our designs have unique layouts. Together with our panelized system, this allows us to design precision fit detailing without on-site fabrication. In our bathrooms, for example, all the finishes snap together on-site to form a cohesive and singular aesthetic. 

Hollywood Hills home office
Window design featuring integrated exterior lighting and interior shades

How has Cover implemented new technologies and methodologies as it has become more advanced? How do you balance design, logistics, and manufacturing? 

Through a software-driven process, we go from a simple floor plan to a full 3D model down to the level of a screw. This allows us to understand up front exactly what we’re going to build, show our customers what it’ll look like, and exactly how much it’ll cost.

Our engineers can focus on developing our building system and manufacturing operations rather than on individual units because ultimately it’s a system that we’re developing, not one unit after another. This is the norm in product-oriented industries like automotive or consumer electronics, but isn’t the norm in building construction.

I work very closely with engineers to keep the feedback loop between design, engineering, and manufacturing short. I feel very fortunate to be working in this way because many of the things that you ultimately see, feel, and touch are a marriage between good engineering and design.

Cover's cabinetry system includes an integrated Murphy bed
A bathroom with a panelized system featuring finishes that snap together on-site

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