Innovative solutions for creating healthy, efficient, eco-friendly homes

Thinking Inside the Box

The road bends, crosses a small but bold stream and starts to rise to meet the mountain. I drive past a tobacco barn on the right. Several mean, bumpy switchbacks later and many feet higher, I glimpse a silvery shape in the treescape.

The Watson-Bless LV home is down the hillside from the parking area. As I approach it, I get a good view of its silvery roof. This home, designed as a vacation retreat, is the first of architect Rocio Romero's LV kit homes to reach the public from her factory in Missouri, and it is nearing completion. The Sheetrock has been hung; heat, plumbing and wiring are in; and the kit, with owner changes, is only a few days' hard work from being ready for occupancy.

The LV is an affordable, modern-day, factory-built kit home. The two-bedroom, two-bath home ships with preassembled components and materials, detailed plans, instructions and a videotape to expedite on-site construction.

It's the brainchild of Romero, an up-and-coming architect who was born and raised in San Diego, and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and the Southern California Institute of Architecture. While working as an architect and designer in Chile in 1999, Romero created and built her first LV home, a 970-square-foot vacation home in Laguna Verde, in the Andes mountains near the Argentine border. She transplanted the Laguna Verde, or LV, housing concept from Chile to the United States when she returned here to set up shop in Perryville, Mo.

In designing her modern-day kit home, Romero focused on the conservation of materials. "The LV home in Chile was the prototype for the LV kit home," she says. "There were many lessons I learned from the first prototype, such as designing the plan of the home so as to not only attain the best and most efficient spatial layout, but also to [minimize] waste in the construction materials."

During the home's manufacture and assembly, she notes, there is "no waste on the floor framing, floor sheathing, floor finish, roof framing and roof sheathing."

The best part, she says, is that she "made a more affordable home as we maximized our materials."

Speed of factory construction also was a consideration. An LV home can be ready to ship just three weeks after an order is placed. It's designed for easy delivery, with assembly to be done on-site.

The shape of the LV is quite unusual for a mountain home. It's a basic shoebox, with detailing reminiscent of Bauhaus architecture. The Bauhaus movement thrived during the 1920s, fading in the '30s (formal dates are 1919 to 1933). Interference from the Nazis in 1933 sounded the death knell of the actual, physical school and much of the movement.

The Bauhaus school aimed at a unity of art and technology. Following this concept, Romero has provided an interesting and practical option for homeowners who are searching for a comfortable, inexpensive, easily customized second home.

That's exactly what Jennifer Watson and Barry Bless were looking for when they bought the first LV house and assembled it on a mountainous site in Virginia. Constructing their vacation home, which they dubbed Luminhaus (for its light-filled, open design), kept them busier than usual. Bless is a musician and Watson is a photographer for a Richmond-area university, and she works as an architectural photographer. They have four children and very active lives.

The Watson-Bless site is not easy to reach, up a steep and winding dirt road, but a 38-foot flatbed truck made it to the right spot, loaded with the kit parts, ready for assembly. Other parts such as windows were builder-supplied. Window sizes are specified, but windows are not part of the kit. According to Romero, this saves shipping costs, reduces chances of damage to fragile window units and allows for homeowners' preferences. They can add window features, for example, or opt to reduce costs considerably.

Prospective homeowners can customize other parts of the LV as well. One factory option concerns the siding, which is made of Galvalume, a steel, aluminum-zinc-coated roofing material. It is usually installed with corrugations running vertically, but here the corrugations run horizontally. It can be butted at the corners, but Watson and Bless selected J-channel junctions for added security against water penetration.

The LV's design is meant for slab construction, but that's also site-variable. Bless and Watson added a crawlspace beneath the house, where the HVAC equipment and ducting was installed.

"My uncle, who is an architect in Denver, designed the heating/cooling system for us," Watson explains. "This type of system (located in a crawlspace) will be less costly because there are fewer materials and man-hours required to install the trunk/ductwork. We were also worried about mold problems; this type of system will keep the crawlspace dry. Also, the floors in the house will be warm in the winter and cool in the summer."

The wall panels that come from the factory are predrilled for wiring and plumbing, which eases that installation.

Other changes made by Watson and Bless included upgrading roof insulation to R-40, something that will keep the home cooler in the summer while making winter use more practical and cost-effective.

In keeping with its name, the interior of Luminhaus is exceptionally light and airy. Nearly 10-foot-tall sliding doors at the rear of the house make up most of the back walls in the living room and bedrooms.

Bedroom size is sufficient. The master bathroom was eliminated in favor of a third room the occupants can use as an office or study; it cannot be used as a bedroom because the windows aren't large enough to meet building codes. In addition, all but one closet has been eliminated, because, according to Watson, "It's a vacation home. No one stores clothing and other items in closets in homes they occupy for only a small part of the year."

This husband-and-wife team has done a huge amount of work on their LV home, but they also had a lot of help. Others helped install the bath, for example, which includes a two-person shower stall. Bless and Watson traded vacation time in the house for much of the work done by others.

With 1,188 square feet of space, the LV home is best used as a vacation or guest house, not a year-round home. The larger LVL home, however, is 10 feet longer than the LV, offers about 1,415 square feet of living space and is designed to be placed over a basement, so it can be used as a primary home. Neither home is large by today's standards, but both are efficient and designed to the purpose, with great interior flexibility.

LV homes can be placed next to each other and connected with patios or covered walkways if more living space is desired. They are not designed for stacking, nor are they designed to be butted one-to-another, like modular home boxes. But the open floor plans allow easy use of one unit for sleeping and another for living and other activities, for example.

Some design elements of the LV home are unusual. For instance, the roof, which is slightly sloped, has drains that run inside faux walls. These PVC drain pipes are easily cleaned from above, should leaves and twigs ever clog them, but they are invisible to the outside, eliminating gutter downspouts.

In the case of Bless and Watson's house, the roof is made of Duro-Last PVC, a leak-proof, energy-efficient thermoplastic roofing system designed for flat and low-sloped roofs. It's warranted for 15 years and creates a roof that is both attractive and unusual in residences for this country. Most of its assembly, seaming and detailing is done at the roofing plant. The roofing was made in as close to one piece as possible at the factory and then installed by a professional team in just over two days, which included a day spent removing the tarps and laying rigid insulation prior to the installation of the roofing material. A Duro-Last rep was on-site to oversee the work.

The roofing contractors also installed the Galvalume siding, a type of work neither Bless nor Watson knew how to do. In some cases it pays to pay.

"Even though the construction took much longer than I expected, every phase was exciting, and we learned from the experience - and we're not getting a divorce!" Watson says with a laugh. She does recommend, however, that homeowners with less construction experience hire more subcontractors or even a general contractor to help manage the construction phases. "We were really lucky with the subs we hired," she says. "Everyone enjoyed what they did and enjoyed working on something different."