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Design 2001

A Bow to Japanese Architecture

Gordon Steen's prefab versions of 16th-century-style rustic farmhouses reflect his love of simplicity.


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."

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

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.

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