RNLA Homes

RNLA Homes

The houses are designed to generate 95 percent of their electricity needs on site.
Art Gray

Every day, non-profit Restore Neighborhoods Los Angeles (RNLA) deals with down-and-out homes. They purchase foreclosed or abandoned properties, fix them up cost-effectively and put them on the market at a price low- and medium-income household can afford.

Recently, RNLA decided to do something different with three of its 15 current properties. “We wanted to build hyper-efficient, net-zero homes in South Los Angeles,” said John Perfitt, RNLA Executive Director.

A team made up of Santa Monica architecture firm Minarc and housing organization Habitat for Humanity (HfH) was chosen to design the homes, none of which cost more than $130 per square foot. The residences were finished on July 13. Minarc’s construction system makes use of factory-manufactured expanded polystyrene foam panels cut to size, which are then transported on flatbed trucks to the construction site. A crew then slots these panels into a recycled steel frame. Construction can take as little as three days. It is a method that has been used on multimillion-dollar commissions; the price difference lies in the material finishes.


The system has been in development for eight years and has been accepted by the building and safety departments in Santa Monica and Los Angeles. This prior approval helped the team smooth over any potential delays in building that would have cost RNLA time and money. All three homes use the same number of panels, but are configured in different ways, like taking the same Lego blocks and re-arranging them. Minarc adjusted the design and orientation depending on site demands. Speaking about the process, Minarc principal Tryggvi Thorsteinsson said, “80 percent of it is the system, but 20 percent of it is custom.”


Each home is an approximately 1,200-square-foot, single-story cubist dwelling finished with cement fiberboard siding and interrupted by elongated windows. “There is an interplay of the void and solid in our design,” said Minarc’s other principal, Erla Dogg Ingjaldsdottir. “That’s another way we minimize waste.” By introducing a “void,” Minarc created a ventilation space for the home to breathe, while reducing waste on the factory floor. “Each time you cut a window in a panel, that becomes waste,” said Ingjaldsdottir.

What reads as a single vertical window is actually two dual-glazed windows on a white vinyl frame, stacked one atop the other. The top window allows heat to escape; the lower window, covered by a cedar board shutter, allows cooler air inside the home. “We tried to design so the homes wouldn’t need to use air conditioning,” said Thorsteinsson.