Like so many young New Yorkers before them, Jerome and Jamie Pelayo headed west to Los Angeles in 2008 in search of the classic California dream: Surfing in Malibu, hiking in the hills, and coming home to their very own modern house. Alas, perfect waves and weather aside, the reality for first-time homebuyers at the apex of an overcooked market wasn’t quite so halcyon. "There was almost nothing out there," says Jerome. "Modern houses were starting around a million or just under, which was way beyond our means." Instead, they settled on a bank-owned 800-square-foot wreck in gritty-hip Echo Park, just northwest of downtown. Though they bought in June of that year, just before the market crash—an unfortunate stroke of timing they lament to this day—the price was right, or right enough.
The Pelayos’ plan was to eventually strip the cottage-style structure to the studs and renovate, but thanks to a slapdash pre-closing inspection, that scheme, too, proved untenable. "We really had no idea what we were doing," Jamie recalls. The rooms felt toe-stubbingly cramped, interior walls sprouted cracks and water stains, and the foundation turned out to be faulty, a problem that would have cost $50,000 to correct. "The house itself," says Jerome, "wasn’t worth fifty grand."
With the economy in tatters, selling wasn’t an option. Jerome, a Franco-German lawyer without any previous predilection toward designing or building things—"my family isn’t in the construction business or anything," he says—saw only one way forward: tearing the place down and developing a new house himself. "It sounds silly, but I went to the library and got a bunch of architecture books," he says. "It was a very whimsical decision." He began to tinker on the only design software he knew—Adobe Illustrator—before graduating to AutoCAD and SketchUp. Several hundred floor plans later, Jerome had a workable design.
After the demolition, custom-cut four-by-eight-foot insulated OSB panels arrived stacked flat on a single truck, and the new structure was erected in about a week, a feat that allayed the qualms of some neighborhood old-timers wary of architectural interlopers. "They really appreciated that," says Jerome, "leaving for work in the morning and coming home to see that the first floor was already up."
Economy in materials was a priority: Some are repurposed from the teardown (lighting, bathroom fixtures, support beams used as shelving) and many others are proudly (and inexpensively) exposed—from the steel-pipe stair safety rails to the cinderblocks forming the kitchen cupboards. Yet Jerome claims that the bulk of the savings lies in the simplicity of the design scheme itself and the resultant reduction in time and labor costs (the house took five months from start to finish). The floor plan is stacked so that the living room has the same footprint as the master suite, the garage is identical to the office above, and so on, allowing for easy assembly with a three-person crew and keeping plumbing lines confined to one structural wall. The lean setup also gave Jerome flexibility when it came time to construct the interiors; if one project generated leftovers, he’d figure out a way to use them somewhere else. "I could come up with an idea, draft it in CAD that night, and implement it literally the next day," he says.
At 2,000 square feet and four bedrooms, and with costs coming in well under $150 per square foot, the home is far larger than anything at its price point in comparable, or even less desirable, L.A. neighborhoods—and feels even roomier than it is, thanks to Jerome’s mission to maximize usable space. Translucent sliding doors with exposed hardware increase bathroom space and light; the area beneath the stairs doubles as a shelving and storage system. The home is cooled only by its concrete-slab floor, and heated by a single stove that burns wood pellets. Jerome bought a full ton of the compressed-sawdust bits from a horse-rescue ranch (the material is also used as equine bedding). For $195, there’s enough stockpiled in the garage to heat the place for several years. An average monthly utility bill, he proudly points out, is around $20. (The food-budget savings from the vegetable garden and custom pizza oven out back are icing on the cake.)
So energized by the experience was Jerome that he quit his law career and launched a business, Sunia Homes, to bring his cost-effective template to other modern-minded Californians of limited means. Clients can customize the Pelayos’ model to add a terrace or bedroom, subtract the garage, or do away with the side wing altogether. The $150-per-square-foot price includes greywater and solar systems and a pre-planted edible garden. The iterations start at $260,000 and top out at just $340,000, and have a four-month build time. Five Sunia spinoffs are now underway—two in nearby Silver Lake and three across town in Venice—but lest anyone fear an attack of the clones, Jerome insists the façade is highly customizable. New floor plans are in the works, too. "I know the houses we’re building are going to be so much better than this one," he says.
Since construction began, the house has hosted a near-constant stream of visitors, from curious neighbors to house-tour aficionados, local bloggers, and would-be clients. With so much feedback available, Jerome has treated the home as an idea lab of sorts. He devised a front fence made of planters intended for edibles (an experiment since gone awry, although succulents now survive there) and opted to make a statement by foregoing closets in favor of exposed plumbing-pipes-as-racks. Even Jamie, a web video producer for the fashion and beauty industries and "the clotheshorse of the family," has been fine with that: "We thought it was unique," she says, "and I haven’t been forced to scale down anything." (Sunia customers can, however, opt for built-in closets).
What Jerome lacked in building experience, he seems to have made up for in ingenuity and a good old-fashioned willingness to try and try again. "Our guests can relate, because it’s simple and livable," he says. "It’s a house by the people, for the people."