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."