The growing popularity of modular housing is taking another step forward with the latest property from Los Angeles-based home builder ark.la. Quintero is located in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood, which overlooks Dodger Stadium, and consists of four custom-built single-family homes designed by Austin, Texas-based architect Chris Krager. The project broke ground at the beginning of June and is expected to be completed by August, says ark.la founder and CEO Noah Ornstein.
The 1,900-square-foot homes offer features popular with today’s homeowners—open floor plans, large windows, private outdoor spaces—and include environmentally friendly additions like a greywater recycling system, electric car charging ports, and solar panels. Those features are intended to earn the homes an Emerald rating (the highest available) in NAHB’s National Green Building Program.
According to Ornstein, ark.la’s prefab construction model is crucial in allowing the firm to deliver premium features at an attainable price. “We are very focused on financial sustainability,” he says. “We look at the median income in the neighborhoods in which we’re building and ... try to hit a price point for our costs that will enable us to deliver a home that won’t be financially burdensome.” Modular construction’s reduced timeline and increased production control keep costs down enough to make that possible, he adds.
Modular building also offers environmental benefits by dramatically reducing construction waste—and because the construction timeline is shorter than normal, it is less impactful on the existing community, Ornstein says. That’s important to the team at ark.la, because the neighborhoods where they build, like Echo Park, are also where they live and work. “We are not one of those new developers that’s building from afar and projecting their ideals of what a community should be,” Ornstein says.
Aiming for Excellence
“Modular homes are typically not known for architectural distinction,” Ornstein says. “We worked very hard to make these designs both buildable and architecturally progressive and relevant.”
A prototype of the home was featured as part of the International Builders’ Show in January (see Builder's video tour of the show home here); positive feedback from visitors regarding the home’s quality of design and construction helped reaffirm that the project was on the right track. Having various partners and show attendees see and walk through the building was extremely valuable, Ornstein says. “We did modify the building from that [prototype] to the next run of production. ... We learned a huge amount from that.”
Willing to Learn
Much as that experience helped inform Quintero, this small development is an educational opportunity for the builder and its partners. “A lot of what we’re doing is prototypes and research,” Ornstein says. “It is a learning experience, so we are humble in that regard.”
This is in part because modular construction represents only a “tiny sliver” of the total amount of projects being built, so those who employ it need to be innovative. While factory-built construction offers definite advantages, it’s not without its challenges, most notably in the regulatory environment and approvals process, says Ornstein. “There is an intersection with local approvals and then there are a whole different set of building regulations for modular construction. As complicated as it is to build a normal project, this is about three times as complicated.”
However, he adds that he is hopeful that high-profile projects utilizing modular construction methods, like the 73-story Wilshire Grand Hotel by Turner Construction in downtown L.A., will help both in easing the regulatory burden and in igniting consumer excitement.
Ark.la is doing its part to further the movement, with 125 development sites in the Los Angeles area under contract—including single-family subdivisions, a mixed-use project, and larger projects built in partnership with other developers. “We are working hard to keep expanding,” says Ornstein.
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