“What would Eichler do?”
That question clinched the deal that created Simpatico Homes, a modular-home company
inspired by the work of the postwar developer Joseph Eichler.
During the 1950s and ’60s, Eichler built more than
11,000 architect-designed modern homes in California. Seth Krubiner, Simpatico’s founder, lived in one during his youth and remained smitten with its mixture of everyman affordability and mid-century cool.
For his part, Robert Swatt, a principal at Swatt|Miers
Architects based in Emeryville, California, had long pondered a way to make his grand modernist houses more affordable. The two met when Krubiner was called upon to promote and sell one of Swatt’s urban projects; they hit it off, and both soon became convinced that if Eichler were around today, he’d be building in factories to save time and money. And, Krubiner insists, “He’d definitely be interested in sustainability,” since Eichler popularized ideas like energy-efficient radiant floor heating.
United by this icon of modernism, the marketer and architect immediately felt a kind of “simpatico,” or like-minded agreement, and a prefab firm was born.
Instead of taxing the taps, the home’s drought-tolerant garden can be watered with runoff from the roof. Krubiner’s technology of choice: Rainwater Hog, an off-the-shelf, expandable system of rainwater collection tanks that stores water for irrigation. Because the Hogs are slim, they can be positioned directly under a downspout without blocking the walkway—a necessity on a tight city lotlike this. “The nice thing is that you can easily link them together,” says Krubiner. This will come in handy if he ever needs more, but so far his two sets of five 50-gallon Hogs are enough for the property.
It makes sense for a modular home building company to use products that are broken into smaller pieces. That was indeed the logic behind Krubiner’s decision to implement four-inch-deep, two-foot-square trays from Green Roof Outfitters into the two roof gardens. Because the 100-percent-recycled-material trays were cleverly designed with built-in handles, “you can remove them if you need to get to the roof itself,” says Krubiner. He’ll be filling the trays with Sedum Tile mats from Etera, which come preplanted with a colorful array of succulents sturdy enough to withstand the roof’s hot sun and the region’s dry summers.
Simpatico, which is also run by architect Steven Stept of Swatt|Miers, places a strong emphasis on affordability, which, in the oft-pricey realm of prefab housing, is something they are able to achieve via the careful sourcing of materials. The company’s prototype home in Emeryville, in which Krubiner
has lived since late 2011, was created in a San Jose factory for around $270 per square foot, far less than the $400-plus-per-square-foot price tag of
the lowest-priced Swatt|Miers custom homes.
New Kid on the Block
Simpatico relies on the use of some site-built components, unusual in the prefab game. In the Krubiner house, the walls in the garage and the living room are made from insulated concrete from Omni Block. Providing both aesthetic and practical benefits, block walls work well for exterior or interior walls that don’t require plumbing and heating. They’re also cost-effective, as they can be built on a slab, rather than a foundation, and don’t require exterior siding or interior drywall.
Raise the Roof
To incorporate what Swatt calls “a dimension of space you don’t often associate with modular construction,” Simpatico’s factory-built pieces come in two ceiling heights: nine or ten feet. Just above the ceiling, the customization continues—Simpatico modules can be designed to house green roofs, which boost insulation, absorb rainwater, and reduce runoff. In fact, the prototype makes use of all the rooftop spaces: Each one contains either a green roof, the 6.2-kilowatt solar-panel array, a roof deck, or terraces. “Every inch of the roof is doing double-duty,” Krubiner says.
But where Simpatico really deviates from the modular prefab formula is in the way the homes are created. “We don’t sell house plans,” Swatt says.
Nor do they sell one-size-fits-all boxes that
travel from a distant factory to the jobsite. Instead, Simpatico’s homes are based on a system of
modules that can be interchanged, allowing for
semicustom design suited to each resident. The
bar shape of Krubiner’s house, for example, fits
its long and narrow 30-by-100-foot urban lot. Six
modules make up the home’s three bedrooms, three baths, two outdoor terraces, and roof deck.
With plenty of sustainable features, the all-electric home is on track to be a net-zero building, producing as much energy as it uses, and, hopefully, to receive LEED Platinum certification.
And, who knows? If Simpatico takes off as a form of prefab for the masses, the homes just might dot the California landscape like Eichlers do today. “Eichler made a big impact and changed the way homes were built,” says Krubiner. “We want to do that, too.”