Oct 282011

September 2011
BuilderNews Magazine
Feature: Project Profile


The Net Zero Tract Home

A Final Frontier in Sustainable Housing


In 2005, Meritage Homes, a large-scale, production homebuilder headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona, saw one of its most productive years to date. That year, Meritage Homes built close to 15,000 single-family houses, making it one of the top ten production homebuilders in the county. “We just put our heads down and built homes,” says C.R. Herro, Meritage’s VP President of Environmental Affairs. “The emphasis was on doing what we did well,” and that is what Meritage did. The company was founded in 1985, and in just 20 years it became a master at building a broad range of production homes with as most speed and efficiency as possible. Even today, Meritage offers some of its clients a “99 Days. Your Home. Your Way.” guarantee, with prices that can dip below $80 a square foot.

Meritage’s success, like the success of its competitors, had reached a zenith in 2005. The company operates in seven states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina and Texas. Those same states saw a surge in population over the preceding decade, spurring the largest housing boom in US history. Housing starts in the US, that year, topped a record-breaking 2 million homes, with the vast majority of that development taking place in these classically warm-weather states. By the close of 2006, however, most of that had begun to change. Meritage was still on top, still ranked among the industry giants, only the competition had begun to diminish. 2006 was the beginning of the end for the housing boom. Housing starts slumped, and by 2009, they had hit their lowest level in more than 70 years, with just 580,000 new homes built across the whole of the country. The housing boom was over, and Meritage Homes, like nearly every builder in the nation, was about to face its leanest years in decades. The question Meritage had to ask, as did all others, was simply: How would the company survive?

When faced with a market like this, says Herro, a production builder has one of two choices to make. “The market gives you a square-foot price that the market will bear,” he explains, “and you can either strip down and cheapen up to compete with bank re-sales, or you can come to the market with something that has a different value and creates its own opportunity, and the latter is what we consciously choose to do.”

It was Herro’s job, hired by Meritage in August 2009, to create that opportunity. “I was hired specifically to do innovation for the company,” he says, “so they created a role I don’t think exists anywhere else in the homebuilding industry. They hired a wacky environmental engineer and let me loose.” Herro actually holds two master’s degrees, one in environmental engineering and the other in environmental biology, and he is, in his own words, “the in-house nerd,” at Meritage. “To his credit,” Herro says of company founder and CEO, Steve Hilton, “he said, ‘Hey, we are going to hire someone whose job is to just focus on where the winds are blowing us and what is the best thing that we can do — the highest value for the least dollar — that lets us build something special.’”

That something special, to Herro, was evident from the start. Herro is “a nerd.” He is an engineer. And he knew where the winds were blowing. Herro has worked in the construction industry for more than 20 years, and during all that time he has kept a keen eye on the advancing green-built market. “The building industry,” he observes, “has had very little innovation for the last 40 years, while a tremendous amount of innovation was going on around it.” To Herro, the industry was stilted, caught in the single-minded pursuit of efficiency at the expense of other advancements. Green building in the US, he notes, had remained mostly on the periphery of the overall housing market. A few, generalized innovations had filtered through. Appliances became more efficient. Insulation was beefed-up and then altogether changed. Windows were upgraded. But when it came to a wholesale re-imagining of the single-family home, that was left primarily to high-cost, custom homes and show homes never intended for resale. “All the pieces of the puzzle have existed for 20 years,” Herro says. “We just went through the trouble of putting it all together. All I did was stand on some really broad shoulders, take the best of the best from around the world, and that is our program.”

Meritage’s new program, under the direction of Herro and officially launched in September 2010, was to design, build and sell the US’s first net-zero energy tract home, at a price competitive with the production home market. The company now builds its net-zero homes in two communities and offers a similar option on all other homes it builds. “The first thing we did,” says Herro, “was to look at the building shell: the windows, the insulation, the framing, the conditioned attic, the lighting system and the appliances, all of which works to cut the energy demand for the footprint of that house in half.” From there, Meritage moved on to energy production, part two of the net-zero equation. The company joined forces with EchoFirst, Inc, manufacturers of the EchoFirst Solar System, an innovative dual solar PV and thermal array, with an integrated air management system. Standard on nearly every Meritage Home is now a 2.15 kWh EchoFirst Solar system, and for roughly $10,000 more, clients can upgrade to a 5.64 kWh system that would make the house a net-zero energy home.

The EchoFirst system, itself, represents an impressive advancement in efficiency, increasing the energy output over a similarly sized PV system by upwards of 100 percent. Meritage’s partnership with EchoFirst, Inc. shows why the production homebuilder belongs in the sustainable market. As Herro notes, though many builders offer similar amenities, most are offered as add-ons and built on a house by house basis. Meritage made these amenities standard, and by doing so, it was able to leverage its economy of scale, both in terms of material costs and installation. “A big piece of this is our trade partners,” Herro says, “because all the things we do on these homes, we’ll do 3,500 times. We spent a year designing, and we spent six months with our trade partners (framers, plumbers, etc.) getting their heads around it.”

Oriana Schooley is a sales associate for Meritage in the master-planned community of Verrado, just outside Phoenix, Arizona. Arizona, Phoenix and the surrounding Maricopa County was, and still is, one the hardest hit regions for foreclosures in the US. Roughly 15 percent of Arizona households received a foreclosure notice in 2009. The market is tougher than it has ever been, says Schooley, and yet she remains decidedly optimistic. “This has been great for us,” she says of Meritage’s new net-zero program. DMB Associates, Inc, out of Scottsdale, AZ, is the developer at Verrado, and five builders, including Meritage, are vying for the buyer’s attention.

Meritage, to help both educate and attract those buyers, has built a partially deconstructed model home, which the company’s uses to emphasize its new “extreme energy efficiency” approaches. Some clients are sold on the spot, Schooley says, while others need as much educating as they do selling. The sales pitch takes longer and it is far more complex, but the results are impressive. The Meritage sales team, in the Verrado community, has managed to outsell its leading competitor by more than three to one, and this, Schooley notes, with homes that can carry a premium of $20,000 or more.

“I think it is the cake and the icing, too,” she says. “Here, there is no compromise. I am the largest lots, the most square-footage, the most efficient, the most technologically advanced, and I am the most expensive. So, when it comes down to it, there is no real explanation for why it is going as well as it is, but my understanding is that we’ve taken a two-year project and we are down to the end of it (after) only ten months.” And this, she adds, in the worst housing market in US history.

“Is there a lot of potential coming?” says Herro, “Yes. Have we extracted all that value? No. But, we are extracting some, and in this market, that’s just fine with us. These homes, with this kind of incorporated extreme energy efficiency, have demonstrated to be more profitable for us than conventional construction.”

Oct 282011

Autumn 2011
Vermont Life Magazine
Profile: Q & A


Every Vermonter Has a Story

Ana Araguas-DiTursi: tango teacher, empanada entrepreneur


Though Ana Araguas-DiTursi left Argentina 16 years ago, the culture of her native country continues to shape her life in Vermont.

A former professional ballerina, Araguas-DiTursi works as a dance instructor, teaching traditional Argentine tango and other dances to any Vermonter who has “the spirit and the soul” to learn. Araguas-DiTursi and her husband, Robert DiTursi, the parents of two small boys, also operate Ana’s Empanadas, a takeout food business built on her recipes for the traditional Spanish pastries. Araguas-DiTursi began selling her empanadas four years ago from a table at the Rutland Farmers Market, and the couple has since opened a winter snack bar at the base of the Needle’s Eye chairlift at Killington resort and a commercial kitchen and storefront in Rutland.

VL: What made you leave Buenos Aires and move to New York?

AA-D: The ballet was run by the government … and one day the government says, ‘Why are we paying all these dancers? No more ballet.’ That was in 1994, one year before I came here [to the U.S.].

VL: Why did you and your husband decide to move to Vermont?

AA-D: Robert knew Vermont, his uncle owned a house in Lake Bomoseen, and growing up, he loved Vermont. And then after 9/11, we were scared. We had a house in Brooklyn, and all the papers from the towers came into our backyard. … There was too much going on, and Robert says, ‘Let’s move to Vermont,’ and I said, ‘Sure,’ and we moved up here, and it is a wonderful, wonderful state. I just love it.

VL: So, no regrets?

AA-D: No. It is a little cold sometimes.

VL: What is your earliest memory of dancing tango?

AA-D: I danced tango when I was 4 with my dad, every weekend. It was like a family dance. Every time I return to Argentina, we dance tango. It is so normal for us. My dad puts the radio on and everybody in the family dances tango.

VL: How long have you taught tango in Vermont?

AA-D: For seven years, at schools, Castleton College, in Brandon, and I’ve done a lot of private lessons. They come to my house, actually. I have a little place in the basement, and the couples come and I teach private classes.

VL: What is the secret to dancing a good tango?

AA-D: My dad used to say, ‘You can dance a good tango, even if you do a simple movement, if you have it in your heart.’

VL: Is there a different style of tango that you teach in Vermont compared to the tango of Buenos Aires?

AA-D: No. Actually, I find that here in Vermont it is more like Argentine tango than when you go to Texas or other states. Tango is taught different all over the place, and the other tango they have here in America is American tango.

VL: How is it different from Argentine tango?

AA-D: American tango is more artistic, let’s say, like a waltz, like ballroom dancing. They do not do steps like Argentine tango. Argentine tango is more close and little steps.

VL: What spurred you to start selling empanadas at the farmers market?

AA-D: It is very difficult to be a ballet instructor and tango dancer in Vermont, and I am a very energetic person. I have to do something all the time. So, I called my husband and said, ‘I don’t know what you are thinking, but I am selling empanadas at the farmers market.’ And that’s it, I put my baby in my backpack, he was six months, and I went and sold my 50 empanadas. They ate them cold.

VL: When did you realize you had a viable business?

AA-D: That started gradually. I spent $100 to make my first market. After my third market, I said ‘Wait a minute, everyone has a tent, and I don’t have a tent.’ I don’t think I really realized it [was viable] until I got the business at the mountain.

VL: Where do you get your recipes?

AA-D: I do a lot of original Argentinean (recipes). The Humita is a family recipe. My mom taught me how to make it. I called my cousin in Argentina for the La Bomba, a three-cheese empanada. What I like to do is go to a city in Argentina and stop and talk to the owner of an empanada business, and they are very nice and just give me the recipes.

VL: Since you brought tango and empanadas to Vermont, is there anything about Vermont that you’ve brought back to Argentina?

AA-D: It is funny. I actually think that when I go back to Argentina, what I bring is the peace that is in this state.

VL: Peace?

AA-D: Yeah, peace. It is more relaxing. Buenos Aires is a little bit similar to Manhattan. Living in the city is very stressful. Here, Vermont is peace. The people are amazing.

I’ve met the best people in the world in Vermont. The farmers are very intelligent people and just down [to] earth. Vermont people are so kind. It is different. They are different.

Oct 012011

October 2011
BuilderNews Magazine
Feature: Project Profile


A Texas Whole House Remodel

Keeping In-line With the Joneses


The Rosedale neighborhood of Austin, Texas, just north of the city’s downtown, is a quiet, residential neighborhood of winding, tree-lined streets and modest, single-family houses. Most of the homes in Rosedale were built in the 1930s and 40s and much of this original housing remains. Low-slung, single-story cottages and ranch homes sit on large, oversized lots that often top a quarter acre or more. Broad, manicured lawns, side yards and hedgerows separate one house from the next. It is the type of neighborhood where young couples move to start a family and where older folks have remained long after their children have grown. It is also the type of neighborhood, especially in Austin, that has recently attracted considerable attention.

To the city of Austin, Rosedale and neighborhoods like it are an important part of the city’s history, demarcating its progression from a small, southwestern capital into one of the most vibrant and acclaimed cities in the country. Rosedale, once having defined the outer limits of Austin, is now part Central Austin—a collection of some 40-plus neighborhoods that make up the city center. And the city, itself, is booming. Forbes rated Austin the “Best City for Jobs in 2011,” and over the past decade the population has jumped by nearly 40 percent. But, as often happens, with such a sudden and rapid rate of expansion there also comes problems, and Austin has seen its share.

Mark Lind is a Senior Project Designer with CG&S Design-Build, an Austin-based firm that recently completed the whole-house remodel of a typical, single-story Rosedale cottage. It was a squat, nondescript house, longer than it was wide, dark grey with a faded brown asphalt roof and a tiny one-car garage tacked onto the end. Two bedrooms and one bath sat on 1,100 square feet, the interior chopped up into your standard, mid-century dining room, living room and kitchen. The owners, a young professional couple, collect mid-century modern furniture and they wanted the remodel to fit that style. Lind was thrilled. “The original house wasn’t very distinct,” he says. “It was sort of like a cabin, and quite often remodeling clients want the addition to look like the original house. So it was quite refreshing to have people say, ‘No, we want to completely change the appearance.’”

CG&S first met with the clients in the fall of 2008, and Lind says that straight away things went well. A  CG&S crew visited the site, took measurements and Lind drew up some preliminary designs — just to get the ideas rolling. When, at their first official meeting and before Lind shared his ideas, the clients conveyed more of what they were looking for, Lind knew he had hit the mark. “It was as if they had already seen the drawings,” Lind says — that’s how close he’d come. Unfortunately for Lind, CG&S and the clients that was where the ease of the project ended and the worst of their troubles began.

CG&S named the project the Silver Agave house, for the three-foot, spiked desert plant that stands at the end of the drive. The Shoal Creek, a tributary of the nearby Colorado River, runs through the center of Rosedale and skirts the far back corner of the roughly 9,000-sqaure-foot lot. This, unfortunately, put the Agave house in the Shoal Creek floodplain, which attracted the attention of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA, since 1968, provides low-cost, federal flood insurance for houses in high-risk areas. The insurance is cheap, cheaper than it would be otherwise, but as a consequence, FEMA also gets a say in what can and can’t be built. The FEMA approval alone took six months, set strict restrictions and vastly hindered the design. “Basically, [FEMA] told us: ‘Limit yourself to the existing footprint, you can’t spread out,’” Lind says, “and so we changed from pushing out to deciding we had to go up.”

But to go up, as Lind notes, would present its own list of challenges and concerns, the most important of which involved the existing Rosedale residents. Rosedale, like most of Central Austin, has recently attracted a new, younger buyer, looking for homes close to the city center. As a result, the neighborhood is being redeveloped, and in several instances this has led to some of the smaller, historic homes being torn down and replaced with much larger, two and three-story homes often out of character with the existing neighborhood. Many of the residents objected, and the city reacted. In 2006, the Austin City Council passed the “Residential Design and Compatibility Standards,” dubbed the McMansion ordinance for its far–reaching and contentious efforts to limit the size and shape of homes built in Central Austin. The list of McMansion limitations is numerous and includes, among others, a restriction on the home’s floor space to no more that 40 percent of the lot size and frontline setbacks based entirely on the average setback of the surrounding homes.

While Lind’s design of the Silver Agave fit well within the McMansion parameters, not even coming close to such expansive dimensions, Lind says that nonetheless the ordinance has had a major impact on his work as a designer.“You have to put this into the context of this really rancorous debate over what is or is not a McMansion,” he explains. “What no one wants now is to be accused of building a McMansion.”

The owners wanted to reinvent the house, to add more space, and the budget allowed for a near doubling of the existing home. The challenge for Lind, however, was to do all this, on the existing footprint, while creating a look that remained “compatible” with the surrounding single-story houses.

The first to go was the garage. Originally a one-car garage built on a shoddy concrete slab, Lind transformed this into a two-story addition and nearly 500-sqaure-feet of added living space. Immediately, Lind saw the impact this could have on the home’s appearance and sought to reduce it. ”I didn’t want to have a tower sticking onto the front of this one-story cottage,” Lind explains. The first floor siding is cement stucco, intended to give weight and presence at the end of the driveway. Above that, a slender bank of horizontal windows rims the entire structure, dividing the lower and upper floors. Vertical, fiber-cement siding with cedar battens on the second floor help further this division. The near-flat roof, no attic and broad overhangs then cap the tower, stopping the eye and condensing the visual height of the structure. The continuation of the standing-seam roof down one side of “the tower” further draws the eye downward, as would the flow of water over a waterfall.

Lind then continued this diminishing approach to the design for the second-floor addition on the main house. A master bedroom and bath attaches to the second floor loft and stairwell that, along with a first floor dining area, replaced the old garage. The result is an 800-sqaure-foot master suite that includes a utility room and second-floor living area. Again working to reduce the home’s visual impact, Lind slid the addition to the rear the house and recreated the original low-pitched roof at the front. The attic was once more eliminated and the second floor ceiling follows the pitch of the roof — from 8’ 6” at the peak to 7’ 6” at the outside wall. Another long row of windows faces the street. “The second floor does not have any wall at all, just a bank of windows,” Lind explains, “so that the apparent massing of the house still reads like a one-story house.”

The ground floor of the main house was left much like it was. The same roof line. The same front windows. And the recently installed Ipe (a Brazilian wood) covered porch and banister were left intact. “You don’t put Ipe up and paint it,” Lind explains. “It’s just too expensive.”

Inside the house, the interior is a stripped-down, box-like design that coordinates with the home’s exterior. The existing bedrooms were repainted and the ground-floor bath updated with new fixtures and a low-cost ceramic tile. The main living area was then opened up to include the added dining area, the sparse, open staircase and a compact horseshoe kitchen that faces the living room. The inclusion of the beefy, custom-built shelving above the kitchen counter accentuates the mid-century modern motif and melds well with the owners’ tastes in furniture.

At a finished 2,100 square feet, it is fair to say that the Silver Agave house achieved most, if not all, of what Lind, the clients, FEMA and the Rosedale community had hope it would. It is new. Modern. Different. And yet, in the vernacular of the existing neighborhood, it fits and fits well, ready to blend into the historic fabric of Rosedale, rather than standout as an obvious (and oversized) addendum to it.

Sep 012011

Autumn 2011
Vermont Life Magazine
Profile: Q & A


Every Vermonter Has a Story

 John Pelletier: Financial Literacy Educator


JOHN PELLETIER, a Duke law graduate with 20 years in the asset management industry, had long marveled at the lack of personal finance education in America. For years, he swore to family and friends that if he ever had more time, he would do something about it.

Today, two years after he moved to Vermont from the Boston area, Pelletier, 47, is the founding director of the Center for Financial Literacy at Champlain College in Burlington. He also provides strategic consulting services to large asset management firms through his company Sterling Valley Consulting LLC.

VL: What first brought you to Vermont?

JP: It was the skiing and Stowe, but frankly, it was the people. The people in this state are just wonderful, open folks, very different from other communities. Every time we came here, we were always sad to leave and wished we had more time.

VL: What led you to move to Vermont permanently?

JP: I was at a transition point … and my wife kept saying, “Can’t we just move to Vermont?” … So, we decided that if we were willing to change our lifestyle, we could move to Vermont to raise [our three] boys. It is a great place to raise kids. They just love it here.

VL: What inspired you to start the Center for Financial Literacy?

JP: The world we live in is so different than the world our parents lived in. It’s much more financially complex. The quality of someone’s life and retirement depends on two very important things: the ability to save — you’ve got to do it — and the [ability] to figure out how to manage your money. And where do we give you those skills? If anything, less and less of it is being taught in our schools and communities.

VL: How did you get connected with Champlain College?

JP: When I came to Vermont, I put together a PowerPoint and started to go around to people saying, “Vermont ought to have a center for financial literacy.” And, as I spoke to folks, over and over again people said, “Go talk to David Finney,” who is the president of Champlain College. He has been a great partner. I met with Dave at the end of January [2010] and we went live the end of July.
VL: What was the worst financial blunder you made as a young person?

JP: When I got out of law school, I got a job in Washington, D.C., and I thought I had so much money. So what did I do? I went out and bought a sports car and got a high-end apartment. And at the end of that first year, I wasn’t home much and I didn’t drive the car much. I was just shocked. I assumed I’d be able to save money, and I was really living paycheck to paycheck.

VL: What was the best financial advice you’ve gotten?

JP: There was an older partner who pulled me aside shortly after I started [my first job], and the advice he gave me was, “Every time you get a pay raise, before you are used to it, allocate 50 percent, or at least a third, to your 401K plan, and before you know it and much quicker than you think, you’ll get close to the maximum amount.

VL: You have often associated personal finance education today with sex education in the 1960s. Why is personal finance such a taboo subject?

JP: There was a study that came out recently [about how] children and parents are more comfortable talking about sex than money. We teach our kids to look both ways before crossing the street, to buckle their seat belts, to avoid talking to strangers, which is all fantastic advice. We need to do the same thing when it comes to the financial dangers they are going to face. And, for whatever reason, whether it is a lack of knowledge, a lack of comfort talking about the subject or a lack of time, it is not being done very well.

VL: If you could impart one nugget of wisdom to young people about personal finance, what would it be?

JP: Don’t live beyond your means and always figure out a way to save something. Life is about choices, and to choose to buy something is a choice not to save, and to choose not to save may be a choice you regret when you are older.

Jul 112011

July 2011
BuilderNews Magazine
Feature: Project Profile


Sustainable in the Desert

Howling Winds, Scorching Sun? No Problem


Every new construction project starts with a few parameters: site constraints, budget, or a client’s special wishes. This project had a list.

The challenge: Design and build a low-cost, sustainable home in the Mojave Desert, where the sun beats down 350 days a year, the wind blows like a sandblaster, and the summer heat can top a blistering 115 degrees.

The solution: ISO shipping containers.

The project began in early 2009, when the client, Lion’s Gate movie executive Tim Palen, contacted architect Walter Scott Perry, founding principal of ecotechdesign in Los Angeles, CA. “The client wanted to build something in a remote location, for very little money, and in a short period of time,” Perry recalls of their initial meetings. Perry has worked with sustainable design and architecture since the 1970s and often takes a “kit-of-parts” approach to his designs, freely mixing conventional and innovative materials. “Shipping containers,” he says, “just seemed like the most cost effective and expedient way to do it.”

To arrive at this conclusion, Perry first worked through each of the project’s three major constraints: budget, time and the environment. The building site, a two-and-half-acre lot, sits on a small bluff outside Joshua Tree, CA, overlooking the low mesquite and chaparral brush lands of the Mojave high desert. It is hot and dry and difficult to access, making it a tough place to deliver materials and an even rougher place to work. This led Perry to first consider a standard prefabricated home, something often used in the region, which would go up quick and require the least amount of on-site labor. The only catch was the price. The client set a budget of $250,000, and as Perry notes, a high-quality prefab in southern California can run $250 to $350 a square foot. Not much home for the money, unless the price could be reduced. Perry’s initial estimate for the purchase, fabrication, and install of shipping containers was $100 a square foot.

The Mojave high-desert environment further lent itself to Perry’s shipping container design when he considered the long-term impacts the desert would have on the home. Shipping containers — manufactured, most recently, from core 10 steel and sealed with a two-part, marine-grade primer — are one of the most indestructible structures on the planet. The corrosive, salt-laden wind and persistent sun of the open ocean, for all its water, is remarkably similar to conditions in the desert. As Perry says, “If you framed this thing out of wood, the sun would just eat (it) up.” The obvious solution was steel, and shipping containers fit that bill.

Working then off the modern, industrial look of the shipping containers, Perry was able to move onto other elements of the design. One in particular is the client’s photo studio. “The owner wanted a box,” Perry recalls, a large, light-controlled box to be used for photo shoots. All factors considered, Perry was drawn to a Butler, pre-engineered steel building, with industrial ribbed metal siding. The building, a standard commercial unit, melded well with the aesthetics of the shipping containers, while also conforming to the project’s three major constraints. It was low-cost, durable, and could be assembled in a matter of days.

Another key element in the home’s design is the custom-built, sunshade, which forms the roof and southern façade of living area. Shade in the desert is a vital commodity, and Perry designed that commodity into the home. Between the living area to the west and the studio to the east, Perry left open a 400-square-foot “desert room,” with lush greenery and a paving stone and pebbled floor. The sunshade, constructed of repurposed industrial struts and perforated aluminum panels, forms the southern wall and roof of the desert room and extends out to shade the house. An eight inch gap separates the sunshade from the building’s exterior and, all told, reduces the home’s solar exposure by 50%. As an afterthought to the design, Perry might incorporate different panel opacities to achieve varying levels of shading. “On the roof, for example,” he says, “you might have 80% shading, (while) on the walls you’d have 50%, because you want to see through the walls.”

The builder on the project, Eric Engheben, owner of 44 West Construction in Topanga, CA, first met with the client at an LA home show, where 44 West had a renovated shipping container on display. 44 West began working with containers in 2006 and had since completed four shipping container projects, along with its high-end custom homes. The Tim Palen Studio at Shadow Mountain would be the company’s fifth and largest container project to date. “We like the opportunity to work with something different.” Engheben says. “It is more of a challenge.”

44 West works out of a 12,000-square-foot facility in Gardenia, CA, where it fabricates the containers into various modular units, fully finished and ready to install. To Perry, this was part of the appeal. “We do everything,” Engheben says. “The containers are laid out in the yard, and we do the cutting, the framing, plumbing, electric — everything. We then package them up, protect the windows, take out the sliding doors, and head-on down the road. All that is left to do is to secure the units to each other and to the foundation and tie the mechanicals together.”

Construction on the project began in early 2010, with 44 West purchasing six containers from the docks of Long Beach for $2,600 each, which it then fabricated into different units: three for the ground floor living space, two for the second floor bedroom and bath, and the last as a storage unit off the studio. The exteriors were then painted with a standard, low VOC exterior paint, white to reflect the sun, and custom Milgard windows were installed. To finish the interiors, 44 West uses steel studs encased in a three-part insulation system that creates a R26 wall, with two thermal barriers separating the interior from exterior wall. A layer of spray foam is affixed to the outside wall; the cavities are filled with Wool batts; and foam board sheathes the studs. Plywood is then installed and skim-coated for appearance. Plywood, Engheben explains, travels better than sheetrock.

Wanting to keep as much as possible of the container visible, Perry and the client chose to leave exposed the container’s original plywood floors, sanding and sealing the plywood with water-based polyurethane. Mahogany plywood, matching the container floors, was then used on the home’s circular staircase. The ceilings of the units were also left exposed and insulated from above with R40, slanted foam boards, Densdeck roof boards, a cool-roof TPO membrane, and, over the living quarters, the perforated sun shade.

To Engheben, delivery and setup of the containers was the most dramatic and satisfying part of the project, when in a matter of hours the building site was transformed from an open site of concrete stem walls and piers into a nearly fully finished home. “A lot of people who have come to watch the process say, ‘I could never have imagined that what you were building in that facility would end up like this,’” Engheben says. “When you build a two story home in a facility and everything is on one floor, the containers are four feet apart, and when you walk between them it gives you a cavernous feeling, confined. When these are put together and it opens up the space, people are amazed.”

In less than a year from the start of construction, the Tim Palen Studio at Shadow Mountain, a 2,300-square-foot, one bedroom, one and a half bath home, including a 1000-square-foot photography studio, was constructed for the finished price of $150 a square foot, nearly half the cost of a comparable prefab home.

“I always try to clarify affordable housing versus affordable architecture,” Engheben says. “What we provide is affordable architecture. The custom homes we build start a $300 a square foot and go up to as much as $1000. We can do these for $200 a square foot that gives you the same level of detail and quality that you’ll find in a custom home.”


Behind the numbers:

Project Name: The Tim Palen at Shadow Mountain

Photography by: Jack Parsons Photography

Architect: Ecotechdesign, Walter Scott Perry, AIA

Builder: 44 West Construction, Eric Engheben

Project location: The Mojave Desert, Joshua Tree, CA.

Project type: Custom Single Family Home

Project Design: Modern; Sustainable

Date started: May 2010

Date completed: February 2011

Construction methods: Fabricated shipping containers and a pre-fabricated steel engineered building

Number of containers used: Six

Container dimensions: 20 ft long x 8 ft wide, with 8’6” ceilings

Container size: 160 sq. ft.

Total House size: 2300 sq ft

Total living space: 900 square feet

Steel building/ studio dimensions: 36 ft x 24, with added shipping container

Studio size: 1000 sq. ft.

Outdoor, “Desert Living Room”: 400 sq. ft.

Number of Bedrooms: 1

Number of Baths: 1.5

Lot size: 2.5 acres

Climate: High Desert: Hot and Dry

Elevation: 2700 feet

Average annual temperatures:

Average yearly low temperature: 340F

Average yearly high temperature: 1000F

Yearly rainfall: 4.57 inches

Annual rain days: <10 days

Annual sunshine: 350 days


Project Specs:

Exterior construction: ISO Shipping Containers; steel studs; wood studs; Butler, pre-engineered building

Exterior siding: Existing container; corrugated metal siding

Interior sheathing: Plywood, with skim coat


Living Space: Existing container plywood flooring, sanded and sealed with water-based polyurethane

Stairs: Mahogany plywood

Studio: Polished concrete


Living Space: Stem walls and piers

Studio: Slab on grade

HVAC: Forced air, split-unit heat /cooling pump

Sustainable/ Green Amenities:

Double-plumbed grey water irrigation system

Rain water harvesting, with 3,000 gallon storage tank


Walls: R26 / California code: R19

Ceiling: R40 / California code: R30

Finished price, per square foot: $150