After discovering that the old Echo Park house that they purchased was in worse shape than they expected, Jerome and Jamie Pelayo decided to demolish the structure and replace it with an energy-efficient home with a contemporary design that they could afford. The result is a simple, some would say stark, two-story cube built from pre-fabricated wall panels that now rises above a narrow lot on thee 900 block of Rosemont Street. Construction was completed in only five months and the home – which is heated by a wood-pellet stove and take advantage of air tight construction to keep indoor temperatures comfortable - cost about $150 a square foot. That’s about $260,000 for a 1,700-square-foot home. Now Jerome Pelayo has started a home building company, Sunia Homes, that applies many of the materials, techniques and design used on his Rosemont Street home.
Pelayo, 30, was trained as an attorney – not an architect. He has never built a home before and is not a contractor. But he has been able to team up with a real estate brokerage, Keller Williams, in an effort to find buyers interested in building homes using the same concept.
The homes are not for everyone, Pelayo concedes. For one thing, in order for the homes to be built for about $150 a square foot, they must be based on one of five-floor plans and use similar construction techniques and materials. The Rosemont house also features sleek but simple kitchen and bathroom cabinets. There are also no bedroom closets – clothes are hung from tubes attached to the ceiling.
“Our goal is to provide the Sunia homeowner with the tools to live more self-sufficiently and more economically, which requires some level of involvement: tending to the garden, filling the stove with pellets and opening a window or skylight here and there,” Pelayo said in an email. “It’s really not a big deal and stuff we genuinely enjoy doing, but it might not be for everyone. The same goes for the modern, minimalist design of our homes. Our concept is perhaps a more natural fit for our generation, but that’s not to say others can’t enjoy it.”
The following is a brief Q&A with Pelayo regarding Sunia Homes:
What are some of energy efficient/green materials and building techniques used in the home?
Our homes come standard with solar panels, rainwater harvesting, greywater-to-garden, wood-pellet stove, real-time energy monitoring, FSC bamboo flooring, a reflective white roof, insulated low-e windows… even a 200sf vegetable garden. For the structure, we rely mostly on passive solar design principles (high insulation, airtight construction, thermal mass, orientation of the home and natural ventilation) to keep us comfortable and energy consumption to a minimum. The simpler, the better.
How did you decide you wanted to start your own home building firm?
The initial reason behind the project was that we couldn’t find a modern, energy-efficient home that we could afford. So once we came up with a solution, we wanted to make it available to people who are in the same boat as we were at the time.
What’s your background?
I am not a contractor. In fact, I’m not an architect either (I studied law) and this is my first house. When we couldn’t find the house we were looking for and decided to build our own home, I taught myself 3D modelling software (AutoCAD, Sketchup…) and some basic notions of architecture and went from there. Once the plans were drafted, I worked with a structural engineer to have everything engineered to the requirements of the City of LA and went through the plan approval process to get the building permits. I assembled a team of guys and built the house. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but those were the broad strokes.
How can you keep building costs to $150 a square foot? How much can be customized before that $150 a-square foot price no longer becomes realistic?
Two things: standardizing the process and keeping our operation small and crafty. We offer five variations of our model house, ranging from a 3 to a 5 bedroom, from 1,735 to 2,365sf. This gives the client flexibility but the core of the house remains unchanged. This means we are building a similar structure every time, thereby streamlining the process: getting the plans approved by the city is easy when they had been approved for a previous project; the crew is familiar with the process and the structure, so the assembly is faster and more reliable; we get better rates from the suppliers, etc.
Since the type of finish (paint, tile, flooring…) doesn’t affect the timeline, virtually all finishes are customizable, so the owner still ends up with his personalized home. Everybody wins.
As soon as we break from standardization (i.e. build a custom home), the price balloons and the process takes much longer. It’s like asking a car manufacturer for a custom car.
We also keep our operating costs to a minimum: we don’t have an army of engineers and architects on our payroll and don’t work in lavish offices, which are all costs that would otherwise be passed on to the client. And we don’t have the financial resources to just throw money at problems that we face, so we have to come up with creative, cost-effective solutions, which are usually more thought-out and efficient anyway.
Was there anything you learned from building your own house that is now reflected in the homes you propose building for Sunia?
I would say the most significant room for improvement lies in the overall organization and logistics. Synchronizing every step of the construction process is crucial, so when one phase is complete, the crew and materials for the next step are ready. We documented the entire process, so that won’t be an issue in the future.
We’ll be adding a window in the back room, which turned out to be a little dark, but that’s about it.