News
12.22.2011
House of the Issue> Minarc
A house in Venice, California employs futuristic construction technology and an open plan.
The facade's cube-like shape and interlocking places recall classic modernism, but its lightweight foam construction is futuristic.
Art Gray

The 2,400-square-foot Superb-A House is a radical in disguise. From the street, it seems like just another cubist addition to the growing roster of crisp, modestly-scaled residences that make Venice the most rewarding showcase of contemporary residential architecture in LA. However, the home’s cedar siding and cement board cladding conceal an innovative structure that could transform the building industry. The walls, upper floor, and ceiling are composed of modular, self-reinforced panels of styrofoam, slotted into a steel frame.

Minarc, the partnership of Tryggvi Thorsteinsson and Erla Dogg Ingjaldsdottir, took this product, manufactured by a small Nevada company for infill in commercial and industrial buildings, and adapted it for residential use as a novel system of prefabrication. The foam is lightweight and offers high levels of acoustic and thermal insulation as well as fire resistance. Best of all, the cost of construction was held down to $250 per square foot.

   
The indoor/outdoor patio (left), the living spaces open to the outdoors with large sliding doors (Center), and the house's elevation from the street (right).
 

Panels were shipped to the site in two truckloads and swiftly installed. Inset metal flanges provide the required resilience, even for a diagonally braced shear wall. Drywall was glued or screwed to the inner surface of the panels, and their outer surface was wrapped with a waterproof membrane.

Of course, in a city whose building bureaucracy is firmly committed to the status quo, it took two years to win approval to use this system of construction. But the clients’ patience has been richly rewarded by the end result. Each of their soundproof work studios had to be connected to the master suite in order to satisfy regulators who were fearful that detached rooms might be rented out without adding more parking spaces. Minarc has turned this irrational prohibition to their advantage by opening all three rooms to decks that pull in ocean breezes and provide sweeping views over neighboring bungalows.

   
An open living plan groups The kitchen (left) and the living room (center). A detail of the stair (right).
 

The corner site is fenced off with rusted steel plates and wood slats that provide privacy while giving the owners a visual link to passing traffic. A shallow pool filled with fragments of blue glass flanks the entry and casts rippling reflections onto the living room ceiling. The concrete floor has radiant heating, while solar panels above provide hot water. An open kitchen is defined by a red Corian island with custom-designed stools. Glass-topped tables with stacked wood bases complement classic Eames seating. A steel stair is cantilevered from the far wall, and a spiral stair with glass treads leads down from the studios. Aluminum-framed windows open two ways, and sliders open each room to covered terraces. Cross ventilation keeps the open-planned house cool on the hottest days.

Minarc is currently designing a second residence with this construction system, and the two architects have won a competition in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity and the Global Green consultancy to build five low-cost houses for Restore Neighborhood Los Angeles, a city agency. There, Minarc is using foam to build at $125 per square foot and achieve net zero energy consumption. The firm’s kit of parts deserves to become a standard for residential construction, in LA and beyond.

Michael Webb