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How prefab homes could save time and money in L.A.'s housing market

Written by
Avishay Artsy

Housing in L.A. is officially the most unaffordable in the country, according to a new study from the UCLA Anderson School of Management. It's no wonder current and prospective residents are on the hunt for something more practical. 

The idea of prefabricated housing—in which homes are built in a factory, shipped and quickly erected on-site—has been around for a century. But the high cost of homes in Los Angeles has led to a local resurgence of interest in prefab.

Lots of inventors and architects have tinkered with the concept, from Thomas Edison and R. Buckminster Fuller to Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. Factory-produced houses range from low-cost mobile homes to high-end modernist masterpieces, priced according to the structure's size, location and complexity of design. 

The benefits are numerous: precision manufacturing, faster turnaround times for both construction and installation, and a 10 to 15 percent cost reduction over building a home from scratch. Prefab typically uses steel, which stands up better to earthquakes than wood or brick do and produces less construction waste.

"Los Angeles is like the petri dish for experimentation," says Jennifer Siegal, founder and principal of prefab company Office of Mobile Design. "The city is less dense than older East Coast cities, and our 72 °F -and-sunny climate allows for lots of indoor-outdoor design possibilities."

Photograph: Courtesy Dominique Vorillon

Photograph: Courtesy Dominique Vorillon

Siegal added three vertically stacked modules (individually fabricated components of a house that can be combined in any number of ways) to her own Venice bungalow, topped with an Astroturf-covered roof deck. The additions were built in a factory in three weeks and installed by crane in three hours. Her 12-year-old daughter entertains friends in a prototype prefab playhouse in the front yard.

Nearby, LivingHomes CEO Steve Glenn lives in a Santa Monica house made of 11 modules. The house is certified LEED platinum, with solar heating and a greywater system, and was built with recycled glass, cement, steel and sustainably harvested wood. Movable walls allow the home to be adapted to his family's changing needs.

"We're showing that you can do high-quality, highly sustainable, cost-effective housing, in half the time, using prefab," says Glenn.

Prefab is also being used for affordable housing and hospitality projects. Michael Maltzan's Star Apartments on Skid Row, built in 2014, uses prefab modules to house the formerly homeless. Marriott International is building a hotel in Hawthorne using prefabricated rooms; it should be completed in just six months.

Even Silicon Valley is getting in on the action down south. Cover Technologies Inc. moved from the Bay Area to Gardena in February and has raised $1.6 million in seed funding. The company uses software to custom-design guesthouses, pool houses, offices and artist studios.

Because California recently lifted restrictions on accessory dwellings (smaller structures on the same piece of land as a main house), "there couldn't be a better time to do this," says Cover Technologies CEO Alexis Rivas. 

Perhaps Cover's algorithms can overcome the downsides and false starts that have long plagued prefab. When soldiers returned from World War II, the need for mass construction fueled a prefab craze, but consumers viewed the houses as low-quality and unreliable. Now that L.A.'s housing prices are back to pre-recession heights, prospective buyers are looking for any opportunity to save money, and prefab is back in the spotlight once again. 

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