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08.25.2011
House of the Issue> Proto Homes
Veteran home builder brings modernism to the masses.
Lisa Romerein

Since the days of the Case Study Houses and well before, architects have been trying to solve the formula for making elegant, modern homes affordable. Many of today’s top architects have tried, but the results, while definitely attractive and livable, are rarely at the regular Joe’s income level.

One of the latest to try is a company called Proto Homes, established in 2007 and led by Frank Vafaee, a veteran of the luxury homebuilding industry.

“You can always sell palaces in Brentwood,” noted Vafaee, who said he saw a hole in the market for new modern homes and decided to pounce. “Developers like to say Modernism is the kiss of death,” said Vafaee, but he clearly didn’t believe them.

     

While architects espouse their custom designs and signature touches, the construction-savvy Vafaee realized that these elements were the enemies of low cost. Proto Homes uses standardization and factory-built pre-fabricated elements combined with interior flexibility to keep costs down but maintain a lofty and modern feel. The company, whose partners include two architects and an engineer, also designs and builds its projects, keeping costs, and uncertainty, down.

Sizes range from 800 to 4,000 square feet, and prices cost about $210 per square foot.

The company recently completed its first home in Baldwin Village, a nice but certainly not Brentwood-like area of LA. The home uses a hybrid construction method combining prefabricated steel roof and wall panels with a timber strand  frame that can go up in one week. The exterior materials and sizes are predetermined, but buyers can choose from selected variations of corrugated steel and PVC panel. “Things can change, but we need to keep the bones the same,” explained Vafaee.

     
   

The envelope is highly efficient, with thick walls insulated with foam or fiberglass and double pane glass and a high-efficiency furnace. The roof tilts up dramatically, helping with drainage and opening the interior up to light and space. Because all mechanical systems are located in a central core (all can be controlled on an iPad), the roof is clear of bulk and can allow more light penetration.

Inside, the interior is lofty, with a second floor mezzanine and open-plan living spaces that can be divided up into a variety of configurations. Everything is flexible, with a series of modules arranged around the central core (which the company calls the “Proto Core”). Accordion doors close off bedrooms, and sliding doors move along walls. The kitchen uses modular cabinets whose finishes can also be switched out.

Vafaee complains that Modernism has been relegated to “trophy” residences and that he wants to bring it back to its roots of inexpensive materials and true innovation, ”not gimmickry.” In addition to Proto Homes, a handful of other companies, like Blu Homes, Piece Homes, and Ma Modular are all trying to crack this slowly emerging market, but none have yet captured the popular imagination (and others have gone out of business). Perhaps Vafaee’s model, which tries to combine prefab techniques with custom comfort, has found a formula for success.

Sam Lubell