Fab Prefab

Site Staff Home & Design, Real Estate

Its clean lines, bright interiors, and use of materials — especially steel and glass — are common to desert home design. But this home, better known as Desert House, strays from the rest of the pack in one major way: It’s a prefabricated structure.

Designed by Marmol Radziner + Associates, the modern marvel presides over a five-acre parcel of raw desert in Desert Hot Springs that captures 360-degree mountain views. Principals Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner created the Desert House as a prototype for a new venture of prefabricated, steel-frame modern homes.

It’s a calculated risk. For decades, “prefab” was a dirty word in home design. Prefab residential construction, popularized in the early 1900s by Sears-Roebuck kits, has long had a reputation for barely being a cut above trailers. The designs were typically cramped, dark, and outdated. But thanks to a movement across the country for the efficiency and improved design of this type of construction, prefab is fast becoming chic. Dwell magazine helped usher in this trend with its design challenge in 2003 that called for architects to design a prefab home. Marmol and Radziner participated and were simultaneously inspired.

They are no strangers to the Coachella Valley. The duo received international attention for their exacting restoration of Richard Neutra’s Palm Springs Kaufmann House, one of the most photographed midcentury homes in the world. With their modular prefab homes, the duo of iconoclast architects has now set their sights on a single audacious and ambitious goal: to change the way homes we purchase homes. “People will now be able to buy a home like they buy a car, choosing different styles, color, and custom options,” Marmol says.

Desert House is bold in both design and principle. While the clean, spare lines reflect the aesthetic of modern architecture, it’s the steel-frame modular construction and environmentally savvy approach that improve on the prefab concept — and how we live in our homes. The home comprises four modules and six deck modules, creating an imperceptive blending of indoor and outdoor living spaces using expanses of sliding glass panels. These spaces frame the surrounding landscape and environment, capturing what has come to define the sensibility of the modern lifestyle. “California modernism is more connected to the environment, even when it’s a harsh environment like the desert,” Radziner says.  Our work has always focused on the modern relationship between interior and exterior space,” Marmol adds. “It has always been about volume and space as opposed to ornamentation.”

A short landscaped path leads from the freestanding concrete carport to Marmol’s hilltop retreat. The L-shaped home consists of a main house with bedroom, bath, kitchen, and living room. The north wing features a guest suite and a studio. The outdoor space has a large pool and deck with a fire pit. Walkways with concrete overhangs connect the four house modules and create shade. Solar panels, obscured on the roof, generate the home’s electrical power.

Built as a vacation home for Marmol, his wife, Alisa Becket, and their baby, Emilia, the concrete modular home effectively served as the launching pad in October for Marmol Radziner Prefab. The firm chose the desert for its prototype because the partners developed a fondness for the area during their numerous projects here. They are in the design phase of several Marmol Radziner Prefab houses in the Palm Springs area.

In its 60,000-square-foot facility in Vernon, Marmol Radziner Prefab will manufacture site-specific modernist modular homes under one roof, complete with appliances, cabinetry, electrical, and plumbing. Three floor plans with several design options range from a one-bedroom (1,000 square feet) to a two-bedroom (1,570 square feet), including exterior deck space. Because Marmol Radziner Prefab’s architectural designs are modular, they offer greater flexibility. “The idea is that this offers a customer infinite ways to customize and configure the homes to their particular site,” says Marmol.

hile the concrete floors in Desert House radiate solar heat and have a cooling effect in the summer, they make the placement of the modules by crane an unwieldy prospect. As a result, Marmol and Radziner have replaced the concrete floors with wooden floors to lighten the weight for installation. Buyers of future prefab designs can choose from a variety of walnut, oak, and bamboo flooring.

Aficionados of modern architecture who have found themselves out of luck due to shrinking inventory can now have their own custom dream home. Besides the ease of access to aesthetically pleasing prefab design, there are numerous other reasons that make prefab construction appealing, least of which are environmental advantages. Marmol-Radziner Prefab uses recycled steel in its construction, while structural insulated panels, or SIPs, reduce energy consumption. In addition, factory-built homes create less waste than those built on-site and all but cut out the noise pollution of heavy equipment.

Efficiency is a huge benefit, too. Amazingly, the prefab modules can be installed in one day (although it takes a couple of weeks for the finishing touches). Construction and site preparation occur simultaneously, reducing overall construction time. (It takes about six t0 eight months from order placement to move-in.) The base price for the one-bedroom model is $215,000, while the two-bedroom unit is $295,000, depending on
permits, site preparation, and foundation installation.

Desert House is an ideal prototype for Marmol Radziner’s holistic approach to prefab. “All our work integrates the house into the site and into the landscape,” Radziner says. “This house does that in a very modern way.”  n

Leo Marmol will give a lecture on prefab architecture presented by the Architectural and Design Council of the Palm Springs Art Museum on March 18 at 6 p.m. For tickets, call 325-4490
or log on to www.psmuseum.org.