A Family’s Cramped Bungalow Is Replaced With an Accessible and Affordable Prefab

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By Kelly Vencill Sanchez / Published by Dwell
In Santa Monica, a couple go all in on a prefab home that’s flexible and accessible and unabashedly part of their neighborhood.

Since launching their Los Angeles-based prefab company Connect Homes, Jared Levy and Gordon Stott have worked with scores of modern-design lovers to build their dream homes. But when they received a query from prospective clients complete with concept drawings rendered to look as though they’d been plucked from the architects’ own canon, an incredulous Stott emailed back asking, "Who are you?"

The couple—disability rights attorney and mental health advocate TJ Hill and Emmy-winning production designer Jay Heiserman—had clearly done their homework. And their dilemma was one that many of Stott and Levy’s clients share: Their older home was ripe for replacement, but they had neither the budget nor the time for a ground-up custom build. 

Moving wasn’t an option. They loved their Santa Monica neighborhood—an established enclave on the border of Venice—but the charm had worn off the 850-square-foot home they had purchased in 2009. They’d coped with the limited square footage, the water damage, even the termites that rained down from the ceiling, but the steep entry stairs, narrow doorways, and cramped interior presented significant obstacles to TJ’s younger sister, Melissa, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, when she visited from Florida. Things reached a breaking point when the couple’s household expanded to include their daughter, Chloe.

"There were lots of things about the house that didn’t work," says TJ, who also serves on the City of Santa Monica Disabilities Commission. "Those barriers are highlighted every day when you have a child and you’re just trying to get a stroller in and out."  

Rebuilding was in order, but the couple wondered if they could construct a house that not only was accessible, affordable, and environmentally friendly, but would adapt to their needs in the coming years. 

"While we’re aging in place, our needs are constantly changing. This house is adaptable and responsive to those changes." TJ Hill, resident

"More and more of our clients are fitting this mold," Levy explains. "They own homes that were designed for consumer demands and needs that are now close to sixty years old. These homes are at the end of their life expectancy. If TJ and Jay were to rebuild going the conventional route, it would take close to three years through design, approvals, and construction and cost twice as much." 

Whether they’re designing for a lot with views for miles or one in the middle of an urban streetscape, Levy and Stott, who spent more than five years at Marmol Radziner Prefab, believe prefab offers the perfect solution. For TJ and Jay’s 25-by-80-foot property, they set two of their steel-framed 8-by-40-foot modules side by side, with another pair on top. Two 8-by-20-foot modules above a new, site-built garage form the master bedroom and closet. At 1,600 square feet, the four-bedroom, three-bath structure nearly doubled the size of their former home. But because it doesn’t maximize the lot, it adapts comfortably to the neighborhood. 

Since accessibility was a priority, the architects set the building to one side of the lot, a move that paved the way for a sizable wraparound deck that’s flush with the interior so that Melissa can easily negotiate indoor and outdoor spaces. For now, she and other wheelchair users enter the house via a portable ramp, but once on the property they have full access to the entire first floor.

To accommodate an office for Jay (an Ellen DeGeneres Show veteran and now a freelance production designer and art director) that would double as a guest bedroom for Melissa, the architects subtracted 10 feet from the kitchen and dining area. "Our standard Connect4 model doesn’t have a bedroom on the ground floor," notes Stott. "But TJ and Jay knew exactly how they would make it fit for their program and lifestyle needs."

Similarly, the couple’s desire for expansive windows translates to rooms flooded with light and opens up the house to the street. "Gordon and Jared kept asking, ‘Are you sure you want this many windows?’" Jay recalls.

Continues TJ, "At night, you can see us living in our house: We’re making dinner. Chloe is reading a book. A lot of our neighbors have said, ‘But we can see into the house.’ We have sun shades, but when we were thinking about the house, we were thinking about really being a part of the neighborhood. We did something that breaks molds for the neighborhood and for what people think about modern and indoor/outdoor living."

Levy and Stott are delighted that they could give their clients a home that will meet their needs for the long run. "The core of the business is trying to make architecture more accessible for everybody," says Stott. "And that’s truly at the bottom of the modernist idea: Better design doesn’t have to be expensive. That was the idea more than a hundred years ago, and it’s the same idea now."