One can only imagine what the neighbors thought when nine big rigs showed up at a residential plot in La Jolla. In 48 hours, they saw something even more curious: the structure of a house composed of modules built in Utah, trucked to California and lifted into place with a crane. The homeowners — architect Heather Johnston and her husband, environmental engineer David Dickins —call the domicile “Casabrava.”
“Venturing into unknown territory, we felt we needed to be brave,” Heather says. “I have been practicing architecture over 25 years, and there are always the same questions asked by clients: why it takes so long and costs so much. So we looked at ways to answer those questions and decided to try a modular approach ourselves — to really see where to get efficiencies in terms of everythingfrom the site to framing and finishing.”
Before Heather and David could recognize efficiencies, however, they underwent a three-year coastal permitting process to replace the buildings on their one-thirdacre site: a beach cottage from the 1920s that, according to Heather, “had been badly remodeled” and a garage that had been converted into a rental unit. In the teardown, building materials and appliances were sent where they could be recycled or reused, including to Habitat for Humanity.
“On April 1, 2012, in the factory, the modules started to be built; and the same date here we began deconstruction and site preparation. So you see the efficiencies in the piggybacking of building in two locations,” Heather says. She handed her design to the factory and worked with them to determine how the house could be manufactured in rectangles no wider than 14 feet 9 inches and no longer than 60 feet so it could be transported by semi-trailer and fit under bridges. During the four months prior to delivery, Heather and David got footings poured and lined up permits for their 4,100-square-foot residence.
“People think of modular as, ‘Oh, trailers.’ It’s important to note this meets all the codes, just like any site-built home,” Heather says. “Our contract was for them to deliver the modules with drywall only. I wanted to be sure the finishes were installed to our very high standards. I have built up a lot of great relationships with local suppliers, and I wanted to be sure to involve them in this very exciting project.”
Homes of the Year judge Scot Frontis commends the “interesting use of forms that inspire movement throughout the house. It’s a good example of prefab construction that doesn’t look prefab.”
“I do work that reflects our times and doesn’t look like another era or another country,” Heather notes. “I wanted it to look like a modern house in the United States. Every finish had to be great inside and outside, easy to clean and installed through high tolerances.”
The couple chose Western red cedar for a curvaceous ceiling, soffits and outdoor deck and siding. “It’s beautiful, is rot- and
insect-resistant and does well in a marine environment,” Heather says. For flooring, they opted for hard white Canadian maple and Italian porcelain tile with 1/16th-inch joints for a polished finish. “It looks like Carrera marble,” Heather says.That look was created by printing a photograph of Carrera marble onto the porcelain. Heather also used closely spaced Italian porcelain tile in the bathroom, but in watery turquoise hues. “I haven’t been able to find those jewel-like colors anywhere else,” she says. And in keeping with the sleek, contemporary look, the kitchen features Caesarstone and Silestone countertops and high-glaze, white laminate cabinets with a shot of translucent magenta film.
“One of the things we can do as architects and being our own clients is try things that might be more difficult to convince a client to do,” Heather says. “Bright color, if done right, has a dynamic effect.” The pivoting front door, which is 4 feet wide by 8 feet tall, looks like mahogany, but is fiberglass, which will better stand up to the marine environment. Other doors and windows are low-E, dual- glazed glass. “We try to have operable openings in all sides of a room,” Heather says. “All sliders, if they don’t go all the way to the ceiling, will have an operational transom. Cross-ventilation is the key to a livable interior environment.”
Judge Richard Gatling comments on Heather’s smart design: “The strong horizontal planes of the deck, overhangs and rooflines effectively expand and lighten the feeling of this house. ... The thoughtful balance between materials and colors on the exterior carries through to the interior.” Casabrava’s upper level comprises a guest bedroom and a large office that could be divided into two rooms, each with decks joined by a walkway. The first floor encompasses the main living areas: the master suite and deck, living room, kitchen, dining room, three-car garage and two courtyards.
“The courtyards become outdoor rooms that work with the landscape,” Heather says. “Outside the master bedroom is grass, which provides movement and is a wonderful counterpoint to the succulents. The landscape becomes part of the architecture.” As judge
Jennifer Bolyn notes, “It is a pleasure to see experimentation in technology, especially when it is executed in such a nicely crafted and detailed manner.”
For more photos from this Home of the Year feature, check it out in our digital edition.