written by:
photos by:
December 22, 2012
Originally published in Prefab Comes Home
as
Modular Programming
With a sleek prototype in Emeryville, California, under its belt, Simpatico Homes sets out to redefine prefab's cost—and footprint.
Modern net-zero prefab prototype home in Emeryville, California

Simpatico Homes founder Seth Krubiner has lived in the prefab company’s nearly net-zero prototype since it was customized and lifted onsite in 2011. 

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Dining room with 1970s Milo Baughman dining table and Cherner chairs

Krubiner (here, with girlfriend Kylie Gordon) furnished the house with finds from Craigslist and eBay, such as the 1970s Milo Baughman dining table and Norman Cherner chairs.

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Light-filled bedroom with Danish floating bed and vintage teak coffee table

In the light-filled bedroom is a vintage teak coffee table and a Danish modern floating bed.

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Indoor staircase with bamboo treads and handrail

Two-inch-thick bamboo treads and a bamboo handrail on the stairs lead the way to the second floor.

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Courtesy of 
c 2010 Jake Stangel
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Modern living room with Danish and vintage furniture

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. 

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Modern prefab home with drought-tolerant garden

Hog Wild

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.

Tray Green

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. 

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Balcony clad in concrete block, corrugated metal, and Parklex

Good Sidings

“You don’t think of maintenance as a sustainability issue, but it is,” says Swatt, who points out that most exteriors require stain, paint, or sealant for upkeep. This house instead boasts a zero-maintenance facade made from concrete block, corrugated metal, and Parklex—a siding material from a company based in Navarre, Spain. Parklex is an amber-colored wood, yet, because it is a thin veneer set in resin on top of an engineered panel core, it doesn’t require any scraping, painting, or sealing. If the siding ever does need cleaning, a pH-neutral soap-and-water solution and a mop will do the trick. 

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Nighttime view of prefab home facade

On Hot Water

For heating, Simpatico installed a state-of-the-art Daikin Altherma system. The air-to-water heat pump setup creates hot water by drawing the heat from ambient air. (The system also provides heated water for the radiant floor heating.) This type of technology is more common in Europe but growing in popularity Stateside. The Daikin helped make the house all electric, moving it closer to its net-zero goal. 

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Modern net-zero prefab prototype home in Emeryville, California

Simpatico Homes founder Seth Krubiner has lived in the prefab company’s nearly net-zero prototype since it was customized and lifted onsite in 2011. 

 “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.

Modern prefab home with drought-tolerant garden

Hog Wild

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.

Tray Green

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.

Modern living room with Danish and vintage furniture

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.”

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