*Original article from Curbed Magazine by
Sara and Ben Munday were getting nowhere in their search for a modern home in the East Bay. “There just wasn’t much on the market in our price range,” says Sara. “We were either finding homes that were too expensive, or Eichler-like homes that needed a lot of work.” Then, Sara spotted an article about a new kind of prefab home, one that promised high quality for a lower price. “I didn’t believe a new home could be built for that amount,” says Ben. “In fact, I didn’t believe it until the day they finished.”
The Mundays enjoyed living in San Francisco’s Miraloma Park. But the promise of great schools (they have two children: Max, age 6, and Zoe, age 4) and being closer to their families was an irresistible siren song that pulled them east. But then that song hit a sour note during the hunt for a house. That is, until Sara saw the article about Connect Homes.
The company was started by two architects (Gordon Stott and Jared Levy) who created prefab projects for an internationally recognized Los Angeles firm. They left that company to rethink the whole prefabricated home process, and came up with a way to make the system more streamlined and, thus, more affordable. Stott says they are quite aware of “lots of broken-promise stories about the dream of prefab,” but says that they have fixed the manufacturing and shipping problems that have plagued the industry. “We can now offer [a prefab home] at half the price and in a third of the time you’d spend building a home the old-fashioned way,” says Stott. With promises like these, no wonder Ben was skeptical.
After reading the article, Sara started looking online for empty lots, almost as a lark. But she was surprised to find a promising one relatively quickly in Orinda. “I was surprised because the price seemed reasonable,” she said. She and Ben went a looked at the land, and loved the bucolic nature of it. The question was: Could Connect Homes put up a house they could afford?
“Gordon and Jared came up from Los Angeles and looked at the site with us, and they told us it could work on the land and in our budget,” says Ben. But once the property was purchased, the couple had to convince the city of Orinda and Contra Costa County of the same concept. “We didn’t anticipate how much we would have to do with the planning department,” says Ben. But the couple was also somewhat amazed that the county was so willing to work with them. “The city of Orinda is really interested in preserving its rural character,” says Sara. “But they [the planning department] loved the compact footprint and the eco-friendly concepts of this home. It took some explaining, but they were willing to work with us.” Getting the approvals took six months. “Before doing something like this, it’s important for people to check out the feasibility where they live,” Sara says.
Getting the green light to start building was the time intensive part, but there was still more to be done. “We had never done anything like this before, and there were a lot of decisions to be made,” says Ben. The Connect Homes system is basically a steel frame house. “Within that frame, there’s a lot of flexibility,” says Ben. “We were able to locate a lot of the doors and windows where we wanted them.” And the couple wanted a home that would take advantage of the site. “We added more doors,” says Sara. “One of the reasons we moved here was to be able to be outside.”
Once the design was worked out, the home was built in the Southern California factory while the foundation and utilities were laid in Orinda. Then it was time for the trucks. “One of the things the company does is ship the components on regular-sized semi trucks,” says Sara. “Some prefabs have to be hauled on a double-wide truck bed and require police escorts. Our home came on 10 trucks.”
When it arrived, Ben compared the components to huge Christmas presents wrapped in plastic. “Believe it or not, it took them less than a day to assemble it. They started in the morning and they were done by 2 p.m.,” says Ben. “After that, it took about four weeks to hook up the utilities.” A Connect Home video boils the process down to minutes.
The furnishing was nearly as instant. “We had a 1940s house in San Francisco, but we had been filling it with modern furniture for years,” says Sara. “All we had to buy for this house, furniture-wise, was a gray sofa. Oh, and outdoor furniture! We didn’t have any need for patio furniture until we moved here.”
Today, there’s nothing about home that makes it seem as if it happened quickly. Its modernist form is perched on a hillside overlooking treetop vistas. The main house is 2,560 square feet, and a smaller guest house/office measures 640 square feet. The main space is double-height, and that’s Sara’s favorite feature. “I love how light and airy it feels,” she says.
And now that the process is finished, Ben is a bona fide believer. “The main house, including the foundation and fixtures, cost approximately $600,000. The smaller guest house came in around $230,000,” he says. “When [real estate] agent Ken Fox told us what the finished house was worth, it was a good moment.”
“In a sense, we have the best of both worlds,” says Sara. “We have a modern home and a small-town feel.” She says that, a few months in, the family is still getting used to their new surroundings. “When we are eating breakfast and we see turkeys or deer strolling across the yard, we still jump up, point, and exclaim,” she says.