Chapter 4: Re-inspiration

In which we stumble across an architect whose work speaks to us

Where we left off: After a dizzying week of negotiations to buy our (then) dream home, we were back to square one: should we even continue trying to find a new home?

Part I is written by Ben.

Let's Not Do That Again

After the bruising experience of trying to buy an architectural gem in a panicked market, we were not eager to start again from zero.

I was growing increasingly concerned that the market forces at play would push home prices to an unsustainable level, such that we'd lose a ton of money if we wanted to move within a few years.

Plus, the stock markets hadn't fully recovered. It was likely that we'd pay a fair bit more in terms of opportunity cost by buying a house in cash.

Finally, I'd spent hours and hours for months looking through thousands of houses to limited success. At multiple times, I nearly broke down and trained an AI model to trawl through photos of houses to find ones that match our aesthetic (the hard part here is defeating the anti-scraping protections on Zillow).

A Build-or-Buy Decision

At this point, we started to wonder if we should just build our own home. The benefits:

  • We could guarantee that our future home matched our tastes.

  • We would be less likely to find ourselves in a bidding war fueled by irrational actors.

  • The capital outlay would be more gradual.

With the following downsides:

  • Building a new house may or may not be more expensive than buying.

  • Building a house takes forever.

One of the ways we could mitigate the downsides is by building a "prefab" home, as in "previously fabricated in a factory." As with most forms of manufacturing, this affords efficiencies in both price and speed (i.e. in a factory, you have access to a lot more tooling than you would ‘in the field’ to perform repeatable, precise cuts and joinery).

Commentary from Mindy: Contrary to popular belief, “prefab” does not mean “before fabulous.”

There's a huge variety of prefab homes. Some literally show up fully functional on a truck and are lifted via crane to the site, others merely have all the wall panels assembled elsewhere with a lot of finishing to be done on site.

Prefab methods constrain what you can build (e.g. a brick prefab home doesn't make any sense), but fortunately the constraints jive well with what Mindy and I like — simple geometric forms with clean lines.

But perhaps most importantly, as design nerds, it seemed like an awesome project to will into existence our dream home. Thus we began the search—both for land (to be covered in the next chapter) and for the home design to build on top of it.

Commentary from Mindy: If you’re interested in exploring more about prefab, read this and this.

The Contenders

I've dreamt about building a prefab home for a number of years. The engineer in me is a sucker for efficiencies.

When I was thinking about setting up a creative retreat, I had gone down the rabbit hole of tiny homes (which are often prefab) and was close to putting in an order for a Vista from Escape Homes (seen below). We spent a long weekend in an Airbnb version upstate and loved the escape: sleeping in a small glass home surrounded by trees, stars, and the sound of crickets.

Clocking in at a grand 175 square feet, however, this wouldn't be practical for full-time living with two people and two dogs.

There's a large number of prefab companies located in California, such as Connect Homes. But shipping everything (including the in-house labor) across the country negates the cost savings—if a company is even willing to do it at all.

This is a shame because Mindy and I greatly prefer California architecture to things you typically find in New England.

After googling around for a while, there were a couple companies that were worth further investigation:

Ma Modular

Based in Texas, they also have manufacturing on the east coast. Ma Modular is cost effective, but fairly limited in terms of the customization you can do.

Turkel Design

Based in Massachusetts, Turkel Design is started by a bunch of MIT Architecture grads. From our initial calls with them, they run a well oiled machine for building custom prefab homes. Architecturally, their homes fit a "Post and Beam" style.

When we took our first meeting with Turkel, they walked us through a buttoned up process for designing and building a semi-custom home.

The over-simplified version:

First, you align on a set of "jelly cube" components that you'd want in a house.

Then some architects piece these together into a home layout:

Of course, there’s a lot more that goes into it, all of which Turkel manages on a turnkey basis:

Part II below is written by Mindy.

Seeking something special

I stayed out of the prefab evaluation for a while because I was still getting over the loss of the Johansen House. While there was no denying these homes were beautiful, they were lacking that special character.

They were shiny and new and modern. But I didn’t feel the connection. If this were a real-world romantic relationship, there was a lack of “spark.”

And then, Ben came across this home on Pinterest:

A glass-encased jewel box of a home with all the right elements to make it feel magical.

Just a few of them:

  • Built-in bookcases and shelving so that minimal furniture was needed

  • Huge panes of glass that started below the floor for a true '“floor to ceiling” glass effect

  • Open and spacious living room with smaller bedrooms (Ben and I believe that living should be done in a central space, and prefer smaller bedrooms to encourage rest)

  • Stone steps and terrace that flowed naturally out of the home

It was flawless.

Starting the conversation

I reached out to the architect, skeptical that we could make the budget work. After all, this was a luxury home.

The very same day, she got back to us and asked to set up a call.

The conversation felt magical in contrast to what we had been through with real estate agents. The architect talked about design thinking and needs finding, reaching right into our Silicon Valley hearts. She wanted to learn about us, know us as humans! Who knew that such individuals worked in the real estate space.

Later that evening, we Googled her and found on YouTube a talk that she had given to architecture students. She walked through several example projects, including the home we had seen on Pinterest.

It was clear how thoughtful she was about every design decision: the integration between indoor and outdoor spaces, how lighting impacted her clients’ mood throughout the day, what her clients’ kids needed to study and play in the same room.

We were smitten. And overwhelmed with excitement. Finally, someone with incredible design sensibility and shared our care about the details.

We scheduled a follow up call to get deeper into design ideas and to start our partnership together.

Next up: To build a house, we first need land to put it on. We set out on multiple road trips to scope out the right plot of greenery.