The processes by which homes are built have changed over the years as technology has improved, so much so that it’s getting hard to find a hammer on residential construction sites. And although Santa Monica, Calif.–based LivingHomes is ahead of the technological curve—it doesn’t build stick-built homes on site in the traditional fashion—its leaders still have to spot problems and invent solutions in much the same way as traditional home builders.
Steve Glenn founded LivingHomes, a designer and developer of prefabricated homes that focuses on sustainable construction, in 2006. The company has sold most of its homes on the West Coast, but recently has placed units in Montana, New Orleans, and Toronto. LivingHomes has had 18 homes certified as LEED Platinum and one LEED Gold.
LivingHomes had a supply chain problem, though, and it was a big one for the modular builder: Without a factory of its own, it relied on third-party factories to build its homes. But, as Glenn explains, once the industry heated up post-recession, those third-party factories didn’t have much free time to complete the kind of work LivingHomes needed done.
“They’re taking more time to get back with bids and engineering, and in some cases they’ve turned us down for projects because they were too busy,” he says. “They are really set up to do standard, non-customized, lower cost, non-sustainable homes. The biggest category in the industry is mobile homes and low-cost modular homes. So it’s always been a bit challenging working with those guys because we’re doing more custom, high-quality sustainable homes compared to what they do.”
About a year ago, Glenn started to conceptualize a sister company to LivingHomes that would specialize in manufacturing sustainable construction materials, processes, and operations. That idea is now known as Plant Prefab.
Plant Prefab has fewer than 20 employees at its 61,000-square foot factory in Rialto, Calif., but Glenn, now the CEO of Plant, expects that number to rise by year’s end, adding that the company’s project load will dictate its size.
In fall 2015, Plant secured seed funding—an amount that hasn’t been disclosed—followed by a $3 million investment from San Francisco–based Obvious Ventures in March.
Bill Talbott, who has overseen construction on more than 12,000 homes in his career, is Plant’s general manager. This spring, he oversaw construction on Plant’s first home.
LivingHomes currently has more than 40 homes under contract and is keeping the staff at Plant busy in its early stages. But just because Plant is an offshoot of LivingHomes doesn’t mean the two will work only with one another. “If Plant is too busy or if a project requires capabilities Plant doesn’t have, [LivingHomes] will go elsewhere,” Glenn says. “But for the most part we expect to build most LivingHomes on the West Coast with Plant.”
Plant’s first home was in production for six weeks and was unveiled in June at this year’s Dwell on Design Los Angeles, the nation’s largest design event. The 1,700-square foot home was a new model for LivingHomes, called CK4.2, and features three bedrooms and three bathrooms. The home’s design had input from its owner, Sterling Scott, who has waited a long time to move out of his own guest house.
The Home’s Home
Scott purchased his 7,500-square-foot lot in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Hollywood Hills, Calif., in 1999. While he was in escrow, the main home on the property burned down, complicating the escrow process (it took about 18 months) and forcing Scott to move into the guest house on the property.
Since then, he’s tried to build a new home—both stick-built and prefab—but has been unable to find an affordable way of making it a reality. He did hire civil and structural engineers years ago with hopes of building a stick-built home, but the plan came in over budget so it was scrapped. He says he then focused on prefab because at the very least he would have “the definite price of a house.”
After another false start with a prefab builder, Scott heard about LivingHomes about two years ago. He has a narrow lot—150x50—with a view of downtown Los Angeles. He picked a model that would fit nicely. He then suggested altering the model so that its second floor was flipped, placing the master bedroom in the front of the house to maximize his view.
He signed off on having the home displayed at Dwell by Design and was rewarded for the decision when the event paid for upgrades, including flooring, windows, appliances, and a $6,300 toilet that, he says, he would be unable to afford otherwise. Scott estimates the upgrades cost about $100,000.
He paid $296,000 for the home and will shell out an estimated $230,000 more to get the foundation put in, the home delivered, and for a contractor to “stitch” the two together. He obtained the permits from the city in July and, as BUILDER went to print, Scott had hopes to move into the home in September or October.
Soon after finishing Scott’s home, Plant started two new projects and, Glenn says, the company has a full schedule through the end of the year. While Plant continues to get refine its process, it will start to reach out to other companies next year, he adds.
“It’ll build for LivingHomes,” Glenn says of Plant, “but it’ll also build for anybody and any style.”