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Such a deal?

Prefab can be pricey these days, as this Ocean Park home reveals.

August 02, 2006|Christopher Hawthorne | 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.

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 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.

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