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It's a Small World

These little houses indirectly provide shelter for the homeless

October 01, 2002|JANET EASTMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Built for a gated community with no thought to cost or owners associations' covenants, the custom homes for sale in Newport Beach are so ostentatious that even ex-Tyco execs would find them excessive. At $400 to $800 a square foot, these one-of-kind showcases are feats of architecture and engineering, as well as displays of the latest in construction materials and interior design.

Granted, the neighborhood looks a little strange. A Hobbit hideaway with stone walls and circular doors shares a cul-de-sac with a wood-sided American classic, a sandstone castle sprouting a mermaid weathervane, and a stoic brick fire station. And even though they don't have garages, bathrooms or even closets, bidding for them is expected to be robust.

Why? It's for a good cause.

All but one of the dozen playhouses on display at the Fashion Island shopping center in Newport Beach will be auctioned Oct. 12 to raise money for homeless shelters. HomeAid's Project Playhouse was launched in Orange County 11 years ago and has branched out nationally.

Five other playhouses will be on view through Oct. 17 at the Oaks Shopping Center in Thousand Oaks to benefit the homeless in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Both locations offer tours and drawings to win one of the structures.

At the auction, the highest bidders get a relative bargain. The 120-square-foot playhouses are valued at $50,000 to $100,000, but they generally sell for a fifth of their cost. Making up the difference are the designers, woodworkers and other professionals in the building industry who donate time and materials to create these small wonders.

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Looky-loos and those serious about building a dream home will see plenty of fancy stuff--stucco that imitates stone, flat-screen TVs set into walls and other trick treatments that can be translated to full-size houses. However, few homeowners would approve the expense of other options seen here, such as copper instead of galvanized tin flashing and slate instead of clay tile roofs. And even your most eccentric neighbor probably wouldn't install a fog or bubble machine on his property.

But this is not real life, says Michael Schrock of Urban Arena Landscape Architecture & Planning, who for 10 years has been letting his blueprints run wild to benefit HomeAid, a nonprofit group started in 1989 by the Building Industry Assn. "You see things on these houses that you won't find at Home Depot."

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Schrock designed a "Father of the Bride" house with mini rocking chairs on the front porch and custom French doors leading to a balcony. The patriotic red, white and blue interior has a faux fireplace with a flickering red light, a water-hookup for the porcelain kitchen sink and dormer windows illuminating an L-shaped loft. Traditional pine floors and white walls conceal 21st century wiring for high-speed Internet access, digital TVs and video-game consoles.

Keeping to playhouse scale, the front door is only 3 1/2 feet high, but Schrock, a father who knows best, understands the importance of adult access to kids' spaces. On one side of the house is a 4 1/2-foot-high Dutch door that allows taller visitors a way inside without having to bend like a paperclip. Painted gables and other architectural details distract the eye from places where the scale has been fudged.

For all the liberties the design teams take, creating on a small scale is restricting, says L.J. Edgcomb of Pulte Homes. After all, a 2-by-4 is still a 2-by-4. "We use regular materials to make something small," he says. "We cut it down, but not so fine that it doesn't hold up to the rigors of horseplay or it compromises the structural integrity." For the two-story he built from Schrock's plans, Edgcomb narrowed 4-inch-wide siding to 2 1/2 inches, and sliced 2-inch-wide picket fence posts in half.

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Despite long hours hunkered over saws and knuckles scraped from working in tiny corners, the biggest problem is constructing a transportable playhouse. Each team starts with an 8-by-10-foot wood base. They build up and out from there, but cupolas, lookouts and anything higher than 10 feet or extending beyond the base must be detached when the completed structure is moved from the job site, which is typically next to where an actual full-size home is being built. "We go where the labor and materials are," Edgcomb says.

After the auction, the hefty playhouses--some weigh tons--are moved again, from the shopping center to their new owners' yards. Eyebolts attached to the wood bases allow them to be hoisted by helicopters and cranes over buildings and utility lines.

As anyone who's ever endured a home construction project knows, there are always additional costs. Moving the playhouses 15 miles from the shopping center is included in the sale price, but one generous supporter who paid $105,000 for two playhouses last year had to write another check for $3,200 to have them trucked, then dropped via cranes onto his Las Vegas property.

But it's all for a good cause. Last year, Orange County's Project Playhouse raised nearly half a million dollars from its tours, raffle tickets and auction, and, since its inception, has built 34 shelters and repaired others for those who need them.

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Tours of these child-size neighborhoods are offered Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $5 to $10. For more information on the playhouses in Newport Beach, which are on view through Oct. 12, call (949) 553-9510. For those in Thousand Oaks, through Oct. 17, call (818) 874-9842. Or visit www.projectplayhouse.org.

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