The beauty and affordability of modular living


The modular home has quickly become the new, albeit humble, poster child for quick, affordable housing and off-the-grid living. It also offers immediate housing to disaster-struck communities and may be a solution for the homeless in Los Angeles.

But unlike their earlier incarnations, these innovative structures are more livable and beautiful than ever.

Enter ARCspace, the Sustainable Building Council’s pilot project, a “living lab” founded by producer and director Christian Johnston. After years filming in war-torn communities around the globe, including post-9/11 Afghanistan, Johnston moved his focus to the housing crisis in L.A., which he called “the war here at home.”


The 1,240-square-foot ARCspace project in downtown L.A. presents a solution for quick-build, affordable homes (it was assembled on site in less than 48 hours). It also demonstrates the elegant potential of these types of structures, aimed at adventurous homeowners and those taking advantage of new laws loosening restrictions on ADUs (accessory dwelling units, a.k.a. granny flats).

But instead of repurposing shipping containers, the project builds similar yet brand-new modules, so they’re pristine and free of concerns over lead paint, hazardous chemicals, questionable provenance or other worries inherent to the old containers. Plus, building locally saves money over transporting repurposed containers.

ARCspace is 16 feet wide and constructed of four modules built from new, spec-built American and Japanese steel. The finished construction cost per square foot begins at $150 — about average for modular homes.

It’s located in the heart of downtown L.A.’s Arts District on the same lot as Wisdome L.A.’s Immersive Art Park.

The unit was pre-manufactured off-site with a handful of incomplete finishes, and a four-person team completed the two-day installation marathon.

“It happened quickly,” Johnston said. “The cranes came in and stacked the modules, and then the glass went in. We stayed up all night, went and got breakfast, and then came back and were just hanging the SBC sign when Mayor [Eric] Garcetti came by.”


Garcetti, among the first to visit the site, has been an avid supporter of ARCspace and SBC’s housing-crisis initiatives and grid-independent power solutions.

Johnston lauded progress in the prefab world, saying “steel, modular, off-site construction allows time to be cut in half, compared to traditional stick-build, using non-sustainable lumber.”

In New York City, Marriott International plans to open a 26-story modular hotel next year. The hotel company expects construction to take only 90 days.

And companies such as Boise, Idaho-based Guerdon Enterprises have been paving the way for large-scale, commercial, modular construction projects in the Western U.S. and Canada, including hotels, assisted-living facilities and student housing.

Meanwhile, residential, single-family modular homes such as ARCspace are like “Legos or building blocks,” Johnston said.

“You have the ability to start small, then go vertical, horizontal, and then, if your housing needs shrink, you can take them off and put them in the backyard. The versatility of this type of steel modular — which is very resilient and hardened — is something that everyone can find interesting,” Johnston said.


Through an affiliation with clean-tech incubator LACI (whose La Kretz campus is ARCspace’s neighbor), SBC got access to cutting-edge technologies and new partners, including Grid Alternatives, a nonprofit that trains community volunteers to install solar panels in underprivileged communities.

“We’re not just trying to create finished housing units,” Johnston said, “we’re trying to create community awareness and education around modular technology and grid-independent power.”

For example, Schneider Electric’s Lithionics HVAC and battery storage helps power ARCspace, which, according to Johnston, “can exist without any generator support for up to a year.”

ARCspace also features Zero Mass Water’s Source water panels, which are grid-independent and pull 4 to 10 liters of drinking water per day from the surrounding air.

Drywired’s solar-control glass coating quells heat upstairs, where abundant sunlight comes through floor-to-ceiling double- and triple-pane windows, inspired by Midcentury Modern architect Richard Neutra.

Designer and home-staging guru Meridith Baer furnished ARCspace with tables, chairs, lamps and various other “multifunctional, contemporary pieces that maintain the open feeling of the space, while being easy to use and move around,” she said.


Baer also partnered with SBC in a furniture challenge, donating truckloads of gently used inventory to Habitat for Humanity’s L.A. ReStore thrift shop.

“Los Angeles has a homelessness crisis, and sometimes it feels like the problem is too large and the efforts too few. So when we learned about ARCspace, we jumped at the chance to donate our staging services,” Baer said in an email.

Through public-private partnerships such as these, SBC hopes to enlist upscale companies to give back and help affordable-housing initiatives.

As for the future of ARCspace, Johnston envisions the module will grow to be part of a high-rise in five to 10 years.

“Eventually our structures will be more vertically oriented and tie into keeping the community intact by creating affordable housing units,” Johnston said.