Outdoor beauty, relaxed lifestyle, ample space — this is why many of us choose to live in Greater Palm Springs. It’s also why so many of our friends and relatives who aren’t lucky enough to live here are constantly clamoring to visit.
Maybe you need a place to put those people up, work, indulge in your hobbies, or simply escape from your family (we’ve all been there), while adding valuable square footage to your home. What if you could build a detached guesthouse, office, or art studio, in a sleek, energy-efficient, contemporary design and with the permitting, planning, and construction taken care of for you? Los Angeles–based startup Cover is doing just that, designing its prefabricated backyard shelters in a very modern way: via algorithm.
Cover specializes in what its 24-year-old founders, Alexis Rivas and Jemuel Joseph, call “backyard living spaces” that range from 120 to 1,200 square feet. They can be configured as studios or one- or two-bedrooms, with optional bath and kitchen.
Prefab housing is nothing new — early models were created by the likes of Buckminster Fuller, and current California-based purveyors include Blu Homes, Proto Homes, and mnmMOD. Off-site manufacturing of easily reproducible housing materials in standardized sizes allows for low-cost production at an unwavering level of quality, as well as easy shipping and assembly.
Rivas and Joseph, who met while studying architecture at The Cooper Union in New York, set out to capitalize on such savings. “I worked for several high-end residential architecture firms,” Rivas notes, “and I realized that the majority of the costs and time that went into the traditional design process didn’t go toward the end product; it went toward coordination and engineering and design of one-offs. And I became interested in finding a way to make really high-quality designs accessible to a lot of people.
“What I found was that there are a ton of prefab companies out there, but none of them were approaching the problem by actually redesigning the product from the ground up, and the process from the ground up, to take advantage of the technology that’s out there.”
Prospective Cover clients pay an initial $250 to begin the process. The company handles zoning research while clients answer a series of 50 to 100 questions about what they’re looking for in terms of the unit and how it will relate to the rest of the property and the main house, addressing such factors as lifestyle, orientation toward the sun, and privacy concerns — the same criteria they would discuss with an architect in a traditional design process.
You have a clutter-free space that is reduced down to the absolute essentials in terms of design.
What’s different here is that rather than an architect producing a single design, Cover’s proprietary software — developed in part by Joseph, whose background is in computational and parametric design — analyzes the responses and provides three custom options tailored to each unique situation. Clients choose indoor and outdoor finishes and weigh in on the selection of Sub-Zero and Wolf appliances.
In the next stage, which costs $20,000, Cover takes care of necessary permits and surveys the site. After that comes foundation work; manufacturing of materials at the company’s factory in Salinas, California; and installation and assembly. All in, most structures cost between $250 and $375 per square foot.
Here in the Coachella Valley, Cover could be an ideal solution for energy-efficient ancillary space. The units use radiant heating and cooling systems that flow hot or cold water through the floors and ceilings; Cover claims that in hot, dry climates, this is 40 percent more effective than traditional forced-air systems, as well as being silent and offering even distribution that eliminates localized draughts.
Rivas says the company has taken reservations from prospective valley clients. “It seems like a great place for these, because Palm Springs has such a rich history of modern architecture that pushes the boundaries, and this is a continuation of that,” he notes.
This is apparent in the units’ intelligent design features — such as the ability to control temperature and lighting systems remotely — and overall aesthetic. “The kinds of people this is attractive to are those who want spaces that are really well-crafted, thoughtfully designed, well-built, and are looking for a clean, fresh, bright, airy, and modern feel,” Rivas says. “We thought about the design and how to make small spaces feel really big. And that comes down to the details.”
Those details include reducing the thickness of window frames to enable true floor-to-ceiling windows and creating integrated storage embedded into walls. Even power outlets were carefully considered. “We said, ‘OK, what is the purpose of the face plate? Is it required? Can we actually remove it while maintaining the functionality?’ ” Rivas recalls. “We found a way to do that, so you have a clutter-free space that is reduced down to the absolute essentials in terms of design.”
So far, Cover — which has raised $1.6 million in seed funding from investors that include Silicon Valley’s Khosla Ventures — has installed units only in L.A. (Rivas declines to say how many or for whom, beyond noting that clients have come from the worlds of film, music, and tech.) The company hopes to expand throughout California.
Likely to help that process is a state law passed last year that eases regulations on “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs), as they are officially known. The legislation aims to alleviate California’s housing crisis by creating a supply of affordable homes in homeowners’ existing yards — at no cost to cities themselves.
Palm Springs has adopted a new ordinance on ADUs in line with the state law. Among the changes, according to city associate planner Glenn Mlaker: Homeowners who wish to build such structures are no longer required to have an extra parking space; the allowable unit size has been expanded to 1,200 square feet on lots of at least 7,500 square feet; and restrictions on renting out the units have been eased. Mlaker says ADU permit requests have “definitely increased” since the 2017 changes.
Customers can use their units as an office, retreat, or pool house. Also common is the in-law unit, often built for elderly people who no longer need a large house…
All of which is good news for Cover. Customers can use their units as an office, retreat, or pool house. Also common is the in-law unit, often built for elderly people who no longer need a large house, preferring a small yet up-to-date dwelling built on a single level; they can then offer the main house to family members who need more room, or they can rent it out. Similarly, a unit that functions as a guesthouse can be rented via Airbnb or other services to provide additional income for homeowners.
A chic and easy extra space and the potential for extra cash, all with the blessing of the city — that casita you’ve been considering just got a little closer to reality.