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Desert Utopia

With this elegant steel prototype, Marmol Radziner and Associates launch a new prefab venture with the goal of bringing their modern design sensibilities to a broader market.
Leo Marmol and Alisa Becket enjoy one of their home’s many outdoor spaces.

Marmol Radziner and Associates, headed up by the photogenic and personable duo of Ron Radziner and Leo Marmol, has become the name in Los Angeles for painstaking adaptive restorations of mid-century-modern classics, and for contemporary new homes in the modern tradition. They are the architecture equivalent of the couture fashion designer who knows how to sew. Rare among architects, Marmol Radziner construct most of their residential designs, often on picturesque but difficult sites, to a high level of detail and quality—and they charge a premium.

Now the enterprising pair has developed a new prefab design and manufacturing business, called Marmol Radziner Prefab, with the goal of transforming their high-end modern residential design into a product available to a larger market.

Last November, the firm launched themselves into a growing field of modern prefab entrepreneurs. They may not be the first but, according to Leo Marmol, they have the chops. They designed a scheme for the Dwell Home Design Invitational in 2003, and they have utilized commercial prefab wooden modules in some of their public-sector projects. And they have put their money where their mouth is.

“We had to prove to ourselves that we could build a prefab house and so we embarked on an experiment for ourselves and on ourselves,” says Marmol. The firm built the prototypical Desert House as a vacation home for Marmol, his wife, Alisa Becket, and their daughter, Emilia, born shortly after the completion of the house. The house is located atop a sparse hill in Desert Hot Springs, a resort and retirement community near Palm  Springs known for its soft spa waters and its seasonal harsh winds.

When you think of prefab, “palatial” is probably not what comes to mind. But as you take the bend of the desert road, their house—4,500 square feet of sturdy steel modules (2,100 interior square feet and 2,450 covered exterior square feet) rooted onto a concrete pad atop an untamed hill—looms into view like a sleek metal oasis.
“Our goal is not to do prefabricated homes,” says Marmol, alluding to the longtime negative public perception of prefab housing as shoddy, cheap dwellings. “Our goal is to provide high-quality modern living. We see prefab as a means to an end, which is to extend the potential number of people who can afford a good, clean, modern house.”

The Desert House consists of a wing at the south end of the site containing the master bedroom and a generous open dining and living area. From the west and north sides you walk onto covered concrete decks surrounding a swimming pool and leading to a guest room and studio in a separate wing at the north end of the site.

With its exposed-steel structure, large expanses of windows, and concrete floor, the house has the clean, industrial quality and direct relationship to the landscape that brings to mind Case Study Houses by Craig Ellwood or Pierre Koenig—updated in size and strength for the SUV era.

“It seems very machine-like in its structure and materials,” says Alisa Becket, a former travel program manager at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), with a gentle and unassuming manner that belies her Los Angeles architecture pedigree. She is the granddaughter of Welton Becket, architect of some of L.A.’s favorite commercial modern landmarks, including the Capitol Records Building and the Cinerama Dome. “But,” she continues, “it’s really warm and inviting. When you are in the house, it doesn’t feel like it was made in a factory.”

One of the attendees at an open house over the summer, a real estate investor and interior and furniture designer named Stefan Bishop, was so wowed that he ordered a Marmol Radziner prefab for its design, not its budget. He liked the “aesthetics and quality of the product” and its “restrained simplicity.”

That simplicity comes from the construction system: seven steel moment-resistant volumetric modules, each 12 feet wide, 12 feet tall, and up to 65 feet long, plus three shade/deck modules that are each 8 feet wide, 12 feet tall, and up to 65 feet long. The firm chose this system over panelized prefabrication, explains Marmol, because, in their view, “there is great flexibility as to where to place walls and elements within the frame.” With modular, he says, you can complete as much of the work as possible in the factory. “By centralizing production you minimize the lengths of trips by workers to custom sites, saving fuel costs. Plus, there are inherent savings of materials in manufacturing. The design itself is geared toward being as efficient as possible.” And there’s less work to be done onsite, which is especially appealing in Los Angeles, where, says Marmol, “construction has become very politicized” as homeowners get more and more angry and vociferous about disruptive building projects in their neighborhoods.

By the time the module is delivered to the site, says Marmol, “electrical is already done, all the walls are done. The only thing that needs to be done is to connect the utilities and the marriage lines. Then the modules are  bolted together and welded to the foundation.”

“I’ll never forget the day the house arrived,” recalls Becket. “It was four in the morning, the sun was coming up and eight modules arrived on eight flatbeds. There was this huge crane and they pieced it together like
a puzzle. It all took one day, from dawn to dusk. It was spectacular.”

The modules arrived in one day, but the total construction took around seven months, four spent preparing the site and foundation and three completing the house after installation. But, explains Marmol, “The Desert House was a prototype.” Construction time is now three months in the factory, he says, while site prep is being done, and one and a half months onsite after installation.

Building the prototype was a valuable experiment. They found the concrete floor was heavy, slow to install, and tended to crack, so in the future, says Marmol, they are using pre-engineered structurally insulated panels in the floor and ceiling, with “hardwood floors, cork, or concrete or stone tile as a floor covering.” They discovered the 65-foot-long modules were cumbersome to transport and install, and have shortened them to 55 feet. They witnessed firsthand some of the limitations of transporting modular pieces. “The volume itself is a large chunk of house, meaning challenges for access to the site,” says Marmol. So sites that are too steep or out of reach are “simply untenable.”

Most important, they decided in the process that to maintain the firm’s high quality of building they wanted to retain control over production, instead of subcontracting out the manufacturing as they did for the Desert House. They set up a plant in the city of Vernon, south of downtown Los Angeles, which now employs 40 people.

Marmol Radziner Prefab’s original goal was not just to reduce costs for their brand of custom homes, but to standardize them so clients know in advance how much they will pay. They offer five standard models, ranging from one to three bedrooms. But so far every one of their prefab clients, who range in age and location, could have afforded custom, but chose prefab for reasons other than the budget.

“The sustainability aspect” is one, says Marmol, citing details like solar electric-generation panels, efficient triple glazing in the windows, and sustainable materials including recycled structural steel, low-VOC paint, triple-pane low-e argon-filled insulating glass, and an on-demand tankless water heater. Then, of course, there’s the aesthetic appeal, and the reduced construction time.

Each customer has then customized his or her model to meet his or her own taste and site. So Marmol Radziner Prefab is providing a hybrid service—a sort of Pimp My Ride for standardized housing. This means that while their modular homes are significantly more affordable than their custom site-built houses—$240 to $280 per square foot (including raised concrete foundation but excluding site work) instead of $350 to $600 per square foot for custom and site-built—they are not necessarily cheaper than some competing custom-design architects. But, says Stefan Bishop, “I think Marmol Radziner has achieved their goal in terms of what a designer would do setting out to produce a really high-quality prefab.”

As for the prototypical Desert House, “it’s been a wonderful opportunity, says Marmol. “Such experimentation allows you to make your own mistakes and shield your future clients from them.” He laughs. “Ron and I know for sure that the Desert House [a prototype that would cost a client about $985,000 to duplicate], will be the most expensive prefab home we ever produce.” 

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