When Prefab Is Painless

An easy construction process reduces any drama for a couple in California.

Bill and Abbie Burton have experienced their share of construction drama. The Solana Beach, California–based landscape architects have been working together for 25 years, overhauling landscapes and buildings alike. So when the time came to build a vacation house on the 330-acre oak-speckled woodland they purchased in Mendocino County, nine-and-a-half hours north of their main residence, they opted for the easy way out: a custom prefab house designed by Los Angeles firm Marmol Radziner. "We weren’t able to make lots of trips up here, so we couldn’t babysit the process," says Bill. "Stick-built construction requires a lot of hand-holding. Going prefab made it pretty seamless."

When Abbie and Bill Burton hired Marmol Radziner to design their prefab weekend home, their two requests were "simple-simple, replaceable materials," says Abbie—such as concrete floors (poured offsite in Marmol Radziner's factory) and metal panel siding—and "the ability to be indoors or outdoors with ease." Deep overhangs provide shade and protection from rain, so the Burtons can leave their doors open year-round and hang out on their 70-foot-long deck even in inclement weather. They visit the house once a month, usually for a week at a time, with Vinnie and Stella, their rescue Bernese Mountain dogs. Their two adult children occasionally join them. The couple hopes to one day retire here.

The couple met with the firm just six times to hammer out the design: a two-bedroom, 2,200- square-foot house with an additional 1,440 square feet of covered decks. Made up of ten prefabricated steel modules, the structure took three months to build in Marmol Radziner’s dedicated factory, including installation of all cabinetry, plumbing, fixtures, and drywall. The modules were trucked to the site one morning, and were swiftly craned into place atop concrete block piers.

In the foreground are Float beanbag chairs and poufs from Paola Lenti. Mamagreen sofas nestle near the house on the sun-dappled deck. A 9.5-foot-tall shade cloth curtain seals off the entire length of the house when the couple is away, keeping the heat out of the interior and preventing accidental bird suicides against the floor-to-ceiling glass walls.

"We literally sat on the hill in lawn chairs and watched the house come together," says Bill. "It was instantaneous. We went from having just a foundation on our site to walking around our house a few hours later. You never see architecture come together like that." Six weeks later the finish work was complete—seams where the modules met were patched, an 18-foot kitchen island was installed—and the Burtons moved in.

Located just off the kitchen, this room was originally designed for dining—the adjustable Ligne Roset Crescendo coffee table can be raised to 28.75 inches—but most days Bill and Abbie prefer to eat outside or at their casual Caesarstone-topped kitchen island. Today the space serves as a sunny reading spot and guest room, with a convertible futon (from Ligne Roset, since discontinued) and a set of leather-and-steel Paulistano armchairs from Design Within Reach.

The Mikado 2 sofa by Hans Hopfer for Roche Bobois is a bright and cheery centerpiece in the otherwise sedate living room. The nubby wool Photon rug from Design Within Reach warms up the expanse of concrete. The framed drawing is by the Los Angeles–based artist Daniel Brice. Huge sliding doors open the house to the outdoors and virtually double the Burtons' living space.

Passionate cooks, the Burtons installed a Mugnaini wood-fired oven in their kitchen and had a custom Grillery fireplace-barbecue built into the concrete block wall on their deck. Beneath the grill they store oak firewood collected from their property.

Though the Burtons are landscape architects, they took an intentionally hands-off approach to their own land, which is part of the 1,800-acre Long Valley Ranch, a former cattle ranch. "We made very few moves, beyond planting fifty olive trees and some native shrubs and grasses," says Bill. "We wanted nothing in the landscape to be edible or pretty, nothing to attract animals to the house." Nevertheless, they’ve spotted plenty of fauna thanks to motion-activated "trail cams" they use to spy on local wildlife. To date they’ve snapped photos of mountain lions, bobcats, wild pigs, and a bear.


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