One Saturday a month, a hundred architecture enthu-siasts invade the sleepy town of Perryville, Missouri (pop. 7,803), in the rolling hills an hour south of St. Louis, for tours of designer Rocio Romero’s sleek, immaculate home on a secluded hillside outside town. The house is also the showroom for the flagship model of the LV series, part of a growing line of modern prefab dwellings that combine precision and mass production in a sophisticated yet breezy and livable form, produced by Romero’s firm, Rocio Romero LLC.
Most people might chafe at having strangers constantly peeking in their closets, but Romero views the intrusion as a critical marketing strategy. "In the end, my company is only as good as my product," explains the architectural designer turned entrepreneur. "So I’m very careful and I use myself as a guinea pig." As she describes it, buying prefab is akin to buying a car; these monthly tours are the home-buying equivalent of test-drives, allowing potential buyers to envision themselves and their lifestyles within the spaces in a way they could never do with models and blueprints.
Romero, who studied at UC Berkeley and SCI-Arc, designed and built the first incarnation of her prefab line for her parents in Laguna Verde, Chile (hence the LV moniker); that home was featured on the back page of Dwell’s June 2001 issue, facilitating Romero’s reconnection with her high school sweetheart and future husband, Cale Bradford (the two married in 2002). After moving to Missouri for her husband’s career, Romero repurposed the LV as a prefab product she could sell nationwide. The prototype, originally built on the Perryville property as a weekend retreat, became the couple’s primary residence not long after its completion. "We decided we liked being in this house a lot more than we did our place in St. Louis," Romero says with a laugh.
Over 50 of the kit structures have been sold to buyers in 17 states, including California, Michigan, and Virginia. Queries from potential customers arrive almost daily for a production line that includes the original 1,150-square-foot LV, the 1,453-square-foot LVL ("large"), the 625-square-foot LVM ("mini"), the LVL150 (150-mph-hurricane-wind rated), and a single-car garage (the LVG). With the basic LV model starting at $33,900 for outer shell and structural components, the units strike a delicate balance between affordability, efficiency, and aesthetics. But finding this equilibrium requires an attention to design detail unique to prefab. "It’s all intrinsically married," Romero explains. "When you design prefab, it’s not just having a grandiose design everyone’s going to love; it’s also stepping back and thinking about how things get built. Every little step is important and informs how [the house] gets put together and how it gets designed."
Most customers hire local contractors to assemble the LV’s exterior shells, which utilize steel post-and-beam construction, factory-built wall panels and multitextured metal skins, and an array of floor-to ceiling glass. Only a single shear wall partially bisects the interior, allowing buyers to experiment with customized layouts, finishes, and details as tastes, needs, and resources permit. It’s a flexible framework intended to make the homes accessible to do-it-yourselfers with limited budgets as well as wealthier clients.
For Dan Edmonds-Waters, who owns a customized LVL in Napa Valley, California, this versatility was an important consideration. "We were looking for an affordable, sophisticated, modern design," explains the health-care executive of the rural retreat he and his husband, Chris, built for themselves and their two young sons. "We liked the flexibility of this prefab—both in size, assembly, and level of finish. We could easily size the project to meet our budget and lifestyle."
To ensure quality, Romero sources trusses, wall panels, sheet-metal exteriors, and steel frames from individual manufacturers who work from her specifications. Once a unit is sold, components are built on demand and combined for delivery via a single flatbed semi-trailer once the buyer’s foundation is in place. Because each component is factory built as part of a meticulously refined system, onsite construction is streamlined, and buyers have a better idea of what they’re getting for their money. "There’s more predictability, there’s more precision involved," Romero says. "And costs are figured out in advance, so there aren’t major surprises." Even when buyers opt for customized modifications and high-end details, the homes are often still a relative bargain. This is certainly true for Edmonds-Waters, who is adamant that he could not have afforded anything as unique as his LVL unit via more traditional routes. He has so thoroughly embraced the philosophy that he even plans to open his house to visitors as a West Coast version of Romero’s Perryville showroom.
Based on the growing success of the LV line, but hoping to reach an even wider audience, Romero is also set to launch a series of more modestly sized, construct-it-yourself structures dubbed the Camp series. Conceived as studios, backyard offices, guest cottages, and short-term getaways, the 456-square-foot Base Camp and 312-square-foot Fish Camp will both be priced in the $20,000 range. After suitable foundation prep, Romero explains, two moderately experienced DIYers should be able to complete either Camp structure in a weekend, excluding any desired plumbing and electricity. Details like a proprietary foundation-leveling system, preinstalled windows, and a detailed how-to DVD help ensure that the Camp series is user-friendly.
"I’ve always wanted to make architecture that’s affordable for the masses, and while the LV is affordable for its design, it wasn’t as affordable as I wanted it to be," explains Romero of the prefab line’s genesis as a true self-build kit project. "Every single decision that went into this was about us being in the shoes of the person building it, and that’s how we designed it, by walking through that process."
Fort Wayne, Indiana–based Branstrator Corporation manufactures the custom structural insulated panels for the Camp series using the same platen-based laminating process the company uses to create more traditional sunroom and porch enclosures. Branstrator’s owner and president Jerry Branstrator explains, "We took Rocio’s look and feel and morphed it into a panelized system"—which included perfecting a technique to bond the Camp’s corrugated-metal façade to expanded polystyrene cores while maintaining a precise, airtight system. Prototypes of the buildings, which differ starkly from Branstrator’s usual offerings, have already generated interest from visitors to the company’s factory. "The look is highly utilitarian compared to our traditional products," says Branstrator, "but people interested in something a little less conventional are really struck by them."
With the debut of the Camp series and her LV line selling briskly, Romero appears busier than ever. The democratizing potential of prefab, though, seems to invigorate her to continue to refine her products while refuting the idea of good design as a luxury for the rarefied elite. When she was designing the LV prototype, Romero approached many potential manufacturers, including one who liked the designs but thought she was going at it the wrong way—don’t people who like modern architecture, he asked, have the money to design whatever kind of house they want? That is precisely the myth that Romero hopes to debunk by providing functional, versatile products at accessible prices. "If you empower people," she notes optimistically, "and you give them tools that they’re familiar with, that they feel comfortable with, I think they’ll thrive."