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Such a deal?

Times Staff Writer

STEVE GLENN is a former high-tech executive in the midst of reinventing himself, at age 42, as a real estate developer. His company, Living Homes, specializes in prefabricated, environmentally friendly architecture. If you make your way to its debut project, a steel-framed house in Ocean Park designed by Ray Kappe, he’ll greet you wearing shorts and sandals -- and his ambition on his sleeve.

The house is poised to reinvent how architecture is produced and marketed, Glenn says. It includes an “unprecedented” number of green-design features (a claim that William McDonough, Rafael Pelli and more than a few German and Scandinavian architects might dispute). He hired Kappe, a stalwart of Westside Modernism for four decades and a founder of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, because he is the world’s “greatest living architect.”

Glenn is hardly the first person in real estate to see modesty as a sign of professional weakness. And Kappe’s design for the two-story, 2,500-square-foot house, with its crisp wood-and-glass exterior and surprisingly complex interior spaces, is a selling point in its own right.

But the last thing the fledgling prefab movement needs at this point is aggressive marketing or more hype. What it needs is a reality check.

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For nearly five years now, design-savvy consumers priced out of the raging housing market -- and that describes a lot of Americans these days, subscribing to Elle Decor and shopping at Design Within Reach while still writing a rent check each month -- have looked to an emerging group of prefab, or modular, designs as a possible ticket to home ownership. These aren’t the cookie-cutter prefab buildings that dot the suburban landscape but a new breed of factory-built houses combining sleek, camera-ready design with the economies of mass production.

Their lineage can be traced to the Case Study architects of the 1940s and ‘50s, experimental polymaths such as Buckminster Fuller and the developer Joseph Eichler, all of whom sought to bring high-quality residential architecture to a broad public. Even Kappe himself, most ambitiously in an unbuilt scheme for a dorm at Sonoma State, has tried his hand at modular design.

Compared to traditional houses, the new prefabs can be built quickly, efficiently and inexpensively. Gaining enthusiastic coverage in pretty much every major newspaper and magazine in the country, and filling the message boards to bursting at fabprefab.com and other websites, they have proved wildly popular.

Or at least the notion of them has, since so few have been tested in the marketplace. The handful finished thus far have mostly been built as homes for the architects themselves or for a sponsoring magazine such as Dwell. (Glenn will live in the Kappe house while also using it as a showroom for potential clients.) That’s allowed the houses’ creators to remain coy about cost overruns and other obstacles they’ve encountered as they try to work out the kinks of prefab construction. Meanwhile, the prices prefab architects quote to buyers have been climbing, from $125 per square foot three years ago to $250 or even $300 today, pushing costs near the level of custom design.

Most new prefab construction is based on modules, often 12 feet wide, that are outfitted with wiring, plumbing, walls and even cabinetry and then delivered to the construction site on a flatbed truck. The most efficient way to assemble them is in a series of boxes, which explains why high-design prefabs by Jennifer Siegal, Marmol Radziner and others share the spare geometry of Modernist architecture. Those architects would argue, in the spirit of Louis Kahn, that a prefab house wants to take that shape. For them, form follows factory.

Kappe, though, has produced a version in Ocean Park that like his iconic early work, notably his own stunning 1967 house, tries to tug and push the Modernist box enough to create a collection of dynamic spaces and shifting interior views. Stitched together from 11 modules and wrapped in cedar panels and lots of glass, it was trickier to build than some other prefabs. But it also has a sense of openness and sculpted space rare among its competitors.

The airy and sunlight-filled ground floor, with its polished concrete floors, is separated by grade changes rather than walls: A sunken kitchen and dining area is connected by a few steps to a double-height living room. From there you can see up to the second floor, which includes three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a small, awkwardly sited extra room that leads to the front terrace.

Even if Glenn’s claim that the house sets a new global standard in green architecture is a bit of a reach, the design does include a long list of sustainable features, including a gray-water irrigation system, reclaimed wood, radiant heating and rooftop solar panels. It is in the running to receive one of the first LEED (for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) ratings from the U.S. Green Building Council’s new certification program for residential architecture.

Perhaps as significant as the green elements themselves is the way Glenn wields them as marketing tools. Like the organic food movement, green architecture has reached a kind of reckoning point, with broad popularity helping it challenge the wastefulness of the building trades but also threatening to dilute its core principles. Low-VOC paint and fly-ash countertops, in the hands of a new generation of opportunistic architects and developers, are on the verge of becoming what the hot tub was in the 1970s or the Sub-Zero refrigerator in the 1990s -- killer amenities for a certain slice of the home-buying public.

You could say something similar, actually, about the design of the house. For all its attempts to popularize cutting-edge construction techniques and green-building systems, in its debut offering Living Homes is selling a kind of architecture that will strike potential buyers, at least in a place like Santa Monica, as more stylishly familiar than experimental.

Sloping lot affects cost

The lot Glenn chose for the Living Homes debut is less than a mile from the ocean and relatively flat, though it does slope down from north to south -- or, if you’re looking at the house from the sidewalk out front, from right to left. Combined with the relative complexity of Kappe’s design and Santa Monica’s unforgiving code requirements, that modest grade made the house more expensive to build than either the architect or developer anticipated.

Glenn says that construction costs -- everything after the foundation was in place -- were a shade under $250 a square foot, which for 2,500 square feet means roughly $600,000. But he won’t give even a ballpark estimate of how much the site work, foundation or sunken garage cost. It’s likely safe to assume that the total tab -- which doesn’t include the value of the land, of course -- approached the million-dollar mark, and perhaps even exceeded that.

Which brings us to a stubborn contradiction at the heart of the high-design prefab business. Prefab construction lends itself to flat, accessible sites, so that the trucks and cranes that bring the shell of the house to the lot can easily do their work. And the parts of America where flat lots are readily available tend to be places where you can still buy a handsome three-bedroom house for $350,000, leaving few buyers clamoring for a high-design prefab that might cost twice that.

In the regions where the market is expensive enough to make prefab such an enticing option -- Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Seattle, Boston or Washington, D.C., for example -- most of the remaining vacant lots are steep or inaccessible, or have already been rejected by speculative builders for some other reason. On a lot like that, a pricey foundation, retaining walls or other site work is often required, cutting into the potential savings that draw customers to modular design in the first place.

That doesn’t mean prefab architecture can’t or won’t succeed in Southern California. But Living Homes’ potential customers here could hardly be faulted -- given how many of them may want to build on a lot in Mount Washington, Echo Park or the Hollywood Hills that is far less welcoming than the one Glenn chose -- for expecting an honest breakdown, from foundation to rooftop garden, of how much its showcase house cost.

Without it, the contrast between Glenn’s stonewalling sales pitch and the appealing transparency of Kappe’s design will be tough to ignore.


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