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A Bow to Japanese Architecture

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The little Japanese-style house, roofed with gray tiles reminiscent of an old Tokyo neighborhood, perches on the tip of wind-swept Rincon Point in Santa Barbara County, jutting dramatically out toward the sea. As you stand on the engawa, the covered veranda that wraps around the house, the air feels brisk, salty and sharp.

Through a side door, a guest enters an oversized redwood room. . A ceiling of combed spruce slants up two stories, supported by big bluish poles of Oregon fir that soar skyward like masts from a tall sailing ship. This house is owned by Fran Larkin, a spunky retired bank librarian, but it is also the somewhat unlikely offspring of another native Angeleno with a love of Japanese architecture.

Gordon Steen, who is neither architect nor engineer, created this and more than 300 others much like it through a prefabricated system, the core of which snaps together like a set of giant Tinker Toys. “Everything arrives numbered,” he said of his 16th-century-style Japanese farmhouses with sturdy wood frames. “You can put the main frame together in a few days.”

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A Newport Beach resident who declines to state his age, Steen first went to Japan nearly four decades ago with the U.S. Air Force and fell in love with the minimalist lines and rustic simplicity of the roughhewn thatched cottages that dot the country’s lush green valleys. When he moved to Hawaii in the 1970s, he began developing replicas of the quaint farmhouses he had seen on his long bicycle rides.

Steen’s company, currently known as Kokoro Country Houses, sells designs that range in size from 700 to 5,400 square feet for prices that range from $68,000 for the smallest bungalow, to $350,000 for the expansive Nara Country House, construction costs not included. These homes now squat on plots of land from Mendocino to Long Island, Taiwan to the Netherlands.

The subtle spell of Japan’s architecture began creeping into Steen’s subconscious during his childhood--his family lived in a Craftsman-style house in the Crenshaw area, a style known for its Japanese influences. But his time in Japan left him dissatisfied with the bland homogeneity of American suburbia.

“I’d always been frustrated with the things [Americans] were building,” said the charming, wiry designer. “It’s all California ranch-style. I remembered the stuff I had seen in Japan. I started doing research. I got a couple of architects to help me design them.”

Steen stresses that his houses--while true to the lines and spirit of Japanese farmhouses--are not exact replicas of what he saw in his travels. Such a house would be far too primitive--and dark. “One could hardly live in one of those in the 21st century,” he said. “You wouldn’t have a kitchen. You would have a dirt floor. You would have soot on the roof beams. And you wouldn’t have any insulation.”

What Steen has preserved in his designs are the proportions, textures and the feel of Japanese farmhouses. All 15 Kokoro models feature some form of the engawa, as well as “the Great Room"--a large, open central room (for images go to https://www.kokorocountryhouse.qpg.com).

Every component of Steen’s houses are made in the United States except the Japanese roof tiles. The redwood comes from California; the rest of the timber--including the spruce ceiling and the fir poles--from the Pacific Northwest. Shipping can cost anywhere from $500 for the smallest model sent somewhere on the West Coast, to $12,000 for one of the larger models sent to the East Coast or Europe. Steen said construction costs run about 1 1/2 times the cost of pre-cut materials.

Most houses arrive in three to four shipments. The main frame kit is assembled by Timberwork Oregon, a lumber wholesale and fabrication company in Portland, Ore. That kit, which includes large timbers, beams and steel bolts, arrives first in a 40-foot truck. With the help of a large crane, the skeleton can go together in four to five days. A second truck arrives two to three weeks later, with the wall frame, redwood paneling, and combed spruce ceiling. The final truck brings doors, windows and hardwood floors of oak or maple.

What has made these homes especially alluring in disaster-prone California is that they have been able to withstand both earthquakes and tropical storms. Culled from designs perfected in the land of the tsunami and the temblor, Steen’s homes have survived fires, hurricanes and quakes virtually unscathed. One house survived Hurricane Iniki in Kuaui, Hawaii, another suffered only cracking in the drywall during the 1989 San Francisco earthquake and a Malibu home became headquarters for firefighters as they battled flames in the great fire there in 1993, Steen said.

Two other companies also now exist that offer similar kinds of Japanese-inspired residences, both of them spinoffs of Steen’s original designs. Like many small firms, Steen’s business has seen both good and bad days and endured some financial hardships. Some clients have complained of late shipments for components. Established in 1973, his business originally was known as Haiku Houses, but after a financial imbroglio and ensuing legal difficulties, he changed the name in 1998 to Kokoro Country Houses.

Today, Steen is back on his feet financially, he said, and business, which he conducts out of an office in Newport Beach, is picking up. Several homes are in the works for the Los Angeles area and several resorts are planned, including one in Baja California.

Maury Blondheim, who cuts the poles and timber for the mainframes for Steen and another similar company, admits that not every house goes up without a processing glitch. But, he also points out that all the owners he knows have become converts.

“The people who get the house love it,” Blondheim said.

Blondheim believes the market for these snap-together Japanese-style houses--which he describes as a hybrid between prefabricated and custom-designed houses--still has vast untapped potential. By comparison with log houses, a popular house that often comes in a kit, Steen’s Japanese-style houses tend to cost twice as much because of the price of redwood and are not nearly as well-known. Advertising for Steen’s homes has been limited almost exclusively to word of mouth. Often, he said, a little cluster will spring up after someone builds one in an area and curious neighbors drive by and want one for themselves.

“People don’t know about it until they see one,” he said. “If we could put one up on the highway here in Oregon, I could probably sell a dozen just by people going by. It sells itself.”

Steen said most of his clients are globe-trotters with a sophisticated design sense and an appreciation of Asian aesthetics. Ruscha Schorr-Kon, 58, built two of Steen’s houses on a wooded plot in Cambridge, England, that was once a virgin nature preserve--first a large one as a home, then a smaller one as an artist’s studio for the owner. Both look like treehouses, floating on poles 9 feet off the ground. They are connected by a bridge that arches over a pond.

“The structure is so beautiful. Normally it is all hidden in a house,” said Schorr-Kon, who sold the property last year. “People come in, and the first thing they notice is the structure, and then they say, ‘It smells so good!’ ”

Larkin, 89, who owns the Rincon Point house, above the famous surfing break south of Carpinteria, traveled extensively in Japan with her husband before he died. She first spotted one of Steen’s houses on the slopes of Haleakala in Hawaii.

Like many of Steen’s clients, she hired an architect to tailor the basic design to her own needs. She added soft lights on the ground floor to brighten the living room. She knocked out a wall on the back, making two small bedrooms into one. And she hired landscape architect Isabelle Greene to create the garden and a wood patio that cascades down in layers, echoing the sea just beyond.

“I’m crazy about it,” Larkin said of her home. “This is a one-lady, two-cat house. It suits me perfectly.”


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