The Low Down On Green Living
February 25th, 2008
Recently I had the good fortune to interview Jonathan and Mary Jo Davis, co-founders of Davis Studio Architecture + Design and the new line of modular houses, pieceHomes. They have been working in the sustainable architecture field for many years, and have recently launched pieceHomes as a new venture.
Q. How did you get into green architectural design?
Jonathan: The first house I designed –right after college– was in Shreveport, LA. It was a custom home and a really a green home. It was located on a lakefront, so it was designed to be raised up for flooding, sited to take advantage of the views of the lake, and we carefully surveyed the trees and sited the house to save as many as we could. We incorporated solar hot water panels, geo-thermal wells for heating and cooling, heat-recovery units behind the fireplaces, into the design, as well as a self-contained sewage treatment plant that put out pure water right at the lakefront. We also used recycled brick throughout the house.
I was also into camping, being outdoors, and sailing….it all tied together and made sense. After grad school I went to work for Frank Gehry….we did a building for a utility company over in Germany that was a showcase for green technologies… I was very much involved in that building. After leaving Gehry, I completed many projects with recycled materials and sustainable systems. These elements have always been part of my palette. And six years ago when Mary Jo and I met and started Davis Studio A+D, we made this our mission. We design for sustainability and we educate our clients about sustainability.
Mary Jo: Two years ago we built our own house and we wanted to use our house as a showcase to show clients that you could build it green and build it affordably. And now it is a prototype for our pieceHomes concept.
Q: Great—please tell us a bit more about the genesis of pieceHomes and where it is heading.
Jonathan: Through interactions with a client of ours several years back we were working through some ideas related to modular homes. We were interested, but we weren’t ready to try to break into the market. Prefab is a huge industry—especially on the East Coast—so to break into that market isn’t easy. But as we designed and built our own house we started to work with these modular concepts more. Then at West Coast Green we met Tim Schmidt who is the CEO of XtremeHomes. He was starting a new factory that builds green homes….and they are very flexible about what they will build. They will basically build a custom home in a factory—or 20 versions of a house, in modular pieces. So when we saw that they could provide the flexibility that we were looking for, we decided to move forward with pieceHomes. From their factory location, we’ll be able to serve the West Coast. Interestingly though, we’re seeing huge demand on the East Coast…particularly in North and South Carolina. It’s amazing. I never would have predicted it. That’s a market that has surprised us…and we’ll have to figure out how to serve it.
What’s interesting to us—we’re a small architecture firm and all of a sudden we come out with this line of factory-built homes and we’ve gotten exposure all over the world. We’re on peoples’ radar, which we never would have been able to do as a small architecture firm. It exciting but it also presents some challenges for us. We’re used to dealing with clients on a one-to-one basis, and now we have so many people coming to us on the modular front. It’s a different way of doing business. And we’re having to having to adjust our practices to meet the demand.
Mary Jo: I’m excited because off-site built has the potential to change the entire architecture industry. Home building has essentially not changed in centuries…but this is a real departure. Prefab could bring architecture to so many more people. We love that aspect of it.
Jonathan: And for us affordability is key. A lot of companies are selling their factory-built work at $400-500/suare foot—and they are gorgeous, but very expensive. Our goal is to produce some homes at the $200/sq foot level….we’d prefer to sell more smaller, affordable homes to more clients than a big, expensive home to a really wealthy client. We’re also looking at selling the whole package…we’re not selling a kit, we’re delivering the whole house, lock stock and barrel. In the future that would include furniture, linens… we want to create the full package—the client can say check, check, check, and get the whole thing delivered.
Q. Tell us about the projects you are working on now.
Jonathan: We are working on several homes now….the first one is a custom design. It’s called Rindge. It started off as a conventionally built house. But we realized we could build it in modules with some minor changes to the structural engineering. We realized we could save money and time going that way. It’s going to be in Playa Del Rey and we’re signing contracts now with the builders, so we hope to be done by the end of the summer.
Q. Are you hitting any roadblocks—challenges?
Jonathan: It’s a bit more work to do the permitting for off-site built—you have to get two permits—one for what’s built in the factory—and one for what’s done on the site. Two sets of drawing. But it’s not insurmountable. In California at least it’s a fairly clear process.
The second project we’re working on, we’re in early design phase. The client has an old one story house in Venice, LA. Right now they want a new garage and a studio space….but they eventually want a new house. So we’re going to take it in stages. First we’re going to do the garage with a studio module on top of it. That’s the first phase. Then we’re going to do a 2-story addition to the existing house—2 modules—which we would lift over the existing house. The third phase will involve deconstructing the existing house and then with another set of modules we would build a new house, which would connect to the 2-story addition. It would be a seamless integration. The new house will be much better related to the site in the end. Using modules allows us to do it in stages, and it allows the family to continue to live there while this construction is going on. We’re planning to do Phase 1 this summer.
Mary Jo: We’re also talking to people in SF, Seattle, Denver, Texas….and for some reason a lot of people were asking about building homes in Hawaii. But shipping these homes to Hawaii would be a trick!
Q. Tell us about the materials for the homes you’re working on.
Mary Jo: As much as possible, the exterior materials will be installed in the factory. This reduces cost and on-site work. We’ll be using materials such as cementitious panels, galvanized corrugated steel siding, Mangeris wood (from sustainably managed forests). We’re also looking into other materials such as Ecoclad.
As for the interior items, for all of the living spaces we’d offer cork or bamboo floors as the basic. We offer Expanko as well, which is a rubber-cork composite. Or Forbo. We use EcoTop for the counters. No VOC paints and finishes. We use vegetable-based oils on exposed woods. We’ll use formalhyde-free MDF cabinets. Of course Energy Star appliances and a tankless water heater. LED lighting as an upgrade. Whole-house water filters. Dual flush toilets, low flow water fixtures. In our house we used wheatboard…but now the price has gone way up. There are many upgrades available—Kirei board or Palmwood for example.
Q. Will you seek LEED certification for pieceHomes?
Jonathan: We’re talking about it….certainly if the client wants it, we will do it. And all of our homes will be Build-It-Green certified. We can offer the possibility of homes getting LEED certification but not do it as a standard process. If the client wants it, we can go for it. Build it Green is more flexible. It’s a California based rating system and it’s an easier process. We’re planning to do that for all of the homes. A highly rated Build It Green house it’s quite comparable to a LEED house.
Q. Well thank you so much for your time and insights. We’ll be very interested to see PieceHomes popping up across the landscape over the next few years!
Mary Jo: Thanks—we’re excited. Green and modern are merging. It’s a great time.
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