Prefab Sprouts

A Los Angeles realty firm adds a division that specializes in the promising housing form.

At the moment prefab housing is treated more as art than as real estate. Widely discussed, it has earned plenty of acolytes excited about the innovative design and promise of low-cost housing, but so far very few units have actually been built or bought. In fact, most potential clients aren’t really sure how to build or buy. Do you need permits? Can you just assemble a prefab house yourself like a dresser from Ikea? And where do you actually put one?

Enter George Penner and Mike Deasy. When the two broke away from Mossler Deasy & Doe, a Los Angeles-based niche realty company well known for specializing in architecturally significant homes, they thought that their fledgling firm, Deasy/Penner & Partners, would continue to sell the Eichlers and Neutras they knew so well while increasing their portfolio of homes built by living architects. However, circumstances soon led them to establish a prefab division—possibly the first of its kind in the country.

“We had dozens of existing clients who were asking for a guesthouse or saying, ‘I need an office where I can write’ or a studio to paint in,” Penner says of the calls they received. The firm’s already architecture-savvy clients might approach them for something like Marmol Radziner + Associates’ Desert House, but at half the budget. Wanting to be able to point them to more affordable solutions, Deasy/Penner hired two consultants—Neville Graham, a land-acquisition specialist from Sotheby’s, and Sean Gale, a construction specialist who had worked with Marmol Radziner—and the two partners, along with six other agents, are now immersing themselves in the world of prefab design.

“We’d like to bridge the gap between designers and consumers,” Penner says. “We want to be about all things design—sustainability and prefab are some of the most innovative areas now.” Deasy/Penner & Partners’ attempt to educate the market looks like the next step for prefab housing since its promise as a low-cost housing solution will remain unrealized until there are enough buyers to manufacture units in quantity. Toward that end the company plans to create a showroom of existing models by the dozen or so prefab architects they are working with, including Marmol Radziner, Michelle Kaufmann, Rocio Romero, and Taalman Koch.

Early evidence suggests that Deasy/Penner & Partners’ prefab services are needed. Even the firm’s existing clients who live in architectural gems are surprised at all the extras that need to be considered—foundations, sewer hookups, septic tanks, and, of course, land. “The first question we ask is, ‘Do you have a site?’” Penner says. Some homeowners have hillside property that is too steep for a prefab solution; others, accustomed to buying an already developed home, don’t even realize that they need to supply a site. The partners have also found themselves acquiring land for prefab developers like Steve Glenn, who is building a set of Living Homes designed by architect Ray Kappe, and architects such as Marmol Radziner.

“I think there will be considerable growth if land can be found for the right price, and if ‘granny laws’ [which allow infill housing] remain,” says Penner, who sees the most possibility for prefab in areas outside the city, such as Palm Springs, Thousand Oaks, and Calabasas. Does he think it will ever reach a critical mass? “I think people should be optimistic, but it’s a tempered optimism.”

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