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The e-Pod Evolution

Stoked by the green movement, proponents of prefab architecture are racing to develop the Prius of manufactured homes. But will Americans give up their Hummer-sized abodes for a smaller-is-better lifestyle?

There are times when Matthew Salenger wonders what possessed him and his wife to gut out the three bedrooms in their home and turn the whole place into an open loft-style studio, moving their own bed outside, into a long shed-like structure in the middle of their backyard.

“Every time I mow the lawn, I think, ‘This would be so much easier if we didn’t have these stupid pods out here,’” says the soft-spoken 37-year-old with a laugh, motioning toward the pair of narrow, 30-foot-long steel structures. “Then I think, ‘Oh, yeah.’”

Actually, Matthew and Maria Salenger had several good reasons for constructing “the pods” back in 2001, when the newly engaged pair of artists was looking for a way to run an art and architectural design studio out of their small 50-year-old Tempe home.

As fans of Arcosanti creator Paolo Soleri, the Salengers – best known in Phoenix as two-thirds of the design team behind the controversial 9/11 memorial at the state capital – were intrigued by Soleri’s concept of a compressed, intense microscape, and thought the idea of compressing their own bedroom into a grounded version of Lucy and Desi’s “The Long, Long Trailer” had a certain modernist art appeal.

They also liked the green aspect of sleeping in an outdoor edifice that, Matthew says, “forces a direct connection with nature.”

Structurally, each of the pods are comprised of three ten-foot-long steel box frames: the first enclosing a bedroom, which looks out through a glass door onto a roofless patio deck, which looks out onto a floorless and roofless garden area, walling in desert plants and trees to take advantage of their naturally cooling microclimate. Further, the pods are suspended over the Salengers’ irrigated lawn, harnessing simple rainforest science to capture the cool layer of the grasses’ oxygen output.

“Most of the cooling comes from here,” Salenger says, lifting a wooden vent to let in a surprisingly cool source of air from the lawn below, which leaves through the vents at the top of the bedroom section as it heats. By leaving the house’s air conditioning off during sleeping hours, Salenger estimates their monthly energy bill was reduced to a monthly average of $35.

But mostly, the Salengers’ reasons for creating the pods were practical. “We didn’t have any money,” Matthew admits. “And we wanted to add on to the house.”

The pods were an instant hit with the hip crowd into prefabricated residential architecture, who see carbon-footprint hogging, energy-wasting suburban homes eventually going the way of the Hummer. But while Americans may be ready to downsize their cars, selling them into micro-houses has proven a tougher challenge.

After Matthew and Maria’s unique backyard bedrooms were featured on the cover of Dwell magazine, the bible of the modernist architecture and design crowd, Salenger says they were deluged with e-mails from people all over the country interested in buying a unit. In true altruistic spirit, Salenger wrote back saying he’d give the plans away to them for free, including the short list of materials he estimated could be found for under $7,000, in exchange for information about why they actually wanted one.

Dishearteningly, nobody took him up on the offer.

“Several people told us they were dying to have one as a backyard studio to work in, or a guesthouse,” Salenger says. “But when we discovered we couldn’t even give away the plans, we kind of gave up the idea of marketing them.”

The idea of the livable shed is already popular in Europe, where companies like London’s Ecospace market their “contemporary garden studio” as a “private retreat away from domestic distractions.” Cutting-edge California designers have jumped on the trend, too, recasting the minimalist modular frame as the ultimate fab fort. A recent TV commercial for the new Krups Beertender even shows young singles fashioning their own backyard Cheers out of a corrugated stainless steel shed.

But in Arizona, at least, the smaller-is-better living space is still a hard sell.

“We have so much land here, this kind of thing isn’t all that necessary,” Salenger admits. “If we ever eventually say, ‘No more building outside of a certain envelope’ – which I think would be smart – then people may start to think, ‘How can we get more out of the land?’ But we’re not there yet. Something will have to change.”

Mobile Homes Step Aside

“It’s not a shed,” says Vinč Saccento of his yet-to-be-unveiled pre-fabricated structure, the V100 Mod Box.

“It’s a MacBook.”

If the Salengers lacked the marketing savvy to turn their timely creation into a goldmine, Saccento, who vaguely resembles Peter Sellers behind his black-rimmed specs, is poised to become the Steve Jobs of the Valley’s prefab architectural clique.

Having already created the v2 flat, a 450-square-foot, stackable living space he claims various corporate interests are now clumsily tinkering with, Saccento – who also co-owns downtown’s Drip Coffee Lounge with his wife Gina Madrid – says he’s now finishing work on an even better pre-fab creation. The eccentric entrepreneur promises that the V100 Mod Box, like the iconic Mac laptop, will come so perfectly equipped, no one will want to change a thing.

“For about $45,000, you’ll get a one bedroom, one bath unit – delivered, on its own deck and stand – and there’s nothing you’ll need to do with it,” Saccento says. Customizing each unit to the client’s needs, the V100 will incorporate the most durable outer materials, including a revolutionary glue by 3M that Saccento says eliminates the need for nails, screws, nuts and bolts, and it arrives off the truck fully-furnished with pieces reflecting Saccento’s own impeccable taste: kitchen interiors by Scavolini, bathroom fixtures by Duravit and Hansgrohe and a heating and cooling system by LG.

“I’ll be able to tell you exactly how much it will cost, and not $10 over,” guarantees Saccento. “If you try to get the price down, it will only go up.”

Such creative chutzpah is the hallmark of the prefab designer, and the main reason why the new modular living spaces popping up on trendy design blogs bear little in common with the dreary mobile home, to which they’re often erroneously compared.

“That’s a common perception, but they’re much more than that,” says Scottsdale Realtor Scott Jarson, one-half of the husband-and-wife firm Jarson & Jarson, which specializes in architecturally distinctive homes.

“Many of these are architect-designed, and very highly designed – within the scope of what they can deliver in sections, which is fun,” Jarson says. “The whole concept behind modular pre-fab is to deliver architect-designed homes that are financially within reach.” So far, that’s been a bit of a challenge. Transportation costs factor in heavily in pre-fab – in Saccento’s design, the whole 1400-pound structure arrives pre-assembled on the back of a flatbed truck – and rising fuel costs have driven the expense of purchasing a larger modular home close to the cost of a traditional site-constructed house.

Finding appropriate lots for pre-fab can also be a challenge. Jarson says he had his eye on a narrow parcel of land in Scottsdale that he thought would have been perfect for eight to ten modular pre-fab homes, but getting the utilities configured so that the units could be easily plugged in proved an expensive improvement.

“This all ties into an increased interest in green materials, and an increased awareness of design,” he says. “We’re expecting things to be designed a little smarter than they used to be, and we’re seeing a backlash against the more-is-better mentality. We’re going into tighter, well-designed homes that operate more efficiently. And that, to me, is perhaps the finest luxury. Your house becomes more affordable to maintain and keep cool, so your lifestyle becomes more about travel and experience, and less about trying to pay for your air conditioning bill.”

For some, the sheer flexibility of modular design fits in perfectly with a modern life in motion. As our work and home lives demand greater flexibility than ever before, the idea of adding or subtracting rooms like so many Lego pieces begins to make sense.

“I’d buy one of Vinč’s boxes in a heartbeat,” says Saccento’s friend Justin Anthony, who runs the popular architecture blog materialicio.us. Anthony, an eccentric character in his own right, was raised by wealthy bohemian parents in New York’s expansive Alwyn Court apartments and worked his first restoration job at the legendary Dakota at age 16.

But today, at 45, Anthony says he’s most at home on a small houseboat, and believes micro-houses consumers can design themselves are the wave of the future.

“The goal behind this movement,” he says, “is that one day you’ll be able to go online to something like Famous-Architects-dot-com, select exactly the modules you want, the materials you want, fit them together in a viewer, and then have them delivered to your property and snapped together by a few friends.

“That’s the dream – the holy grail,” Anthony adds. “But right now, nobody knows exactly how to get there.”

Outside In

Matthew Salenger emerges from the one private room left in his house-turned-artists’-loft and closes the door quietly behind him.

“The baby just got to sleep,” he says, referring to the 15-month-old addition to the Salenger clan who, in effect, has ended the couple’s seven-year commune with the backyard.

“We are back to sleeping in the house now,” he says, with a tinge of regret. “At first, we thought we’d keep the baby in the other pod and use a baby monitor in ours, but then we figured we’d be running across the yard all night. Plus, when Maria was pregnant, she was getting up to use the bathroom eight times a night – and it’s a long walk from the pods to the house.”

As for himself, Matthew says he rather enjoyed the late night bathroom runs from the pod to the pad. “I learned to tell time by the position of the moon,” he says. “I never thought I’d be able to do that.”

He and Maria also got to experience the Valley’s summer monsoons like never before.

“Monsoons were scary as hell!” he says. “There was lightning all around us, and we just never knew what was going to happen.” Even so, the experience of living in what amounts to an updated, green and efficient variation on the classic childhood fort left an indelible mark on the artists.

“The scheme of being in a space enclosed around the outside but open to the ground at the end is an amazing way to live. It’s an amazing way to wake up in the morning.”

Like Soleri’s inventions, Salenger knows the pods are a little ahead of their time. “The way real estate works, it’s still not valuable to have something smaller,” he observes. “It’s more valuable to have something bigger. Plus, it’s really difficult for people to accept the micro environment.”

Even this bright pair began to feel needlessly claustrophobic in their minimal-footprint abodes amid the wide open spaces of their old Tempe backyard.

“In all honesty,” Salenger says, “I think if I was going to do it again, I’d probably make them a little bit wider.”

 

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