architecture blog

Small Lot Subdivision Branching Out of Los Angeles?

Posted by Christian Navar on Thu, Apr 26, 2012 @ 06:04 AM

Derek and I recently spoke at a mobile workshop on LA's Small Lot Ordinance at the American Planning Association's (APA) National Conference in Los AngelesAt the conclusion of the workshop, we were asked, by an attendee of the workshop, a question about affordability (we like to use “attainability” because when people hear “affordability” they tend to only think of low-income housing). The attendee who asked the question turned out to be a City Council member from the capital city of a state, outside of California, with a population of over a million people (for the sake of privacy and the future of this person’s political career, the person and the city will remain nameless in this blog entry... for now). 

At the conclusion of a very brief back-and-forth dialogue with the councilman, I offered an open invitation to discuss the issue in greater depth. I suggested modative help him figure out if the economics within his district warranted what we feel is one of the greatest city ordinances in the United States. He gave me his card and asked that I get in contact with him. 

In today’s blog post, I would like to share with everyone my initial e-mail to the Council District  representative in an attempt to follow up and get this innovative planning method and practice into another great city: 

 

Hello [City Council member], 

I hope the rest of your stay in Los Angeles and your travel back to [your city] was great!  It was nice briefly meeting you on the APA Small Lot Subdivision tour. Thank you for joining us and I hope you enjoyed our brief presentation regarding a few of our Small Lot Subdivision projects. 

Your question regarding "affordability" was a fantastic one and I would love the opportunity to discuss it further with you. Here, in our office, we utilize Small Lot Subdivision as a means to practice architecture and construction. However, our true passion lies in better understanding the economics involved in the ordinance's implementation. 

Our goal is to develop these projects and provide an attainable housing alternative that will help stop the mass departure of our own friends from Los Angeles. All of us at Modative attended the University of Southern California. Our friends and colleagues from USC are now Architects, Engineers, Lawyers, Doctors, Professors, etc. Unfortunately, due to the high cost of housing in Los Angeles, homeownership is no longer attainable, even for those who practice in top-tier professional fields. Many of our closest friends can no longer afford to live in the city and state they grew up in. We are tired of attending going away parties for friends and family moving to more affordable cities like Portland, Austin, Denver, and Phoenix. We see the potential in the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance to solve this problem. 

Our involvement in the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance has been a great experience thus far. We have become experts in this ordinance and have ideas about how it could be modified to better achieve what it was originally intended to do. We are still firm believers in this housing alternative and think that, with a few small changes or by thinking a bit out of the box, we will soon be able to develop a housing stock that keeps L.A.'s professional class from migrating elsewhere. 

From your website, I gather your city is experiencing some growth and you are very interested in future planning while providing opportunity that is mutually beneficial to your constituents and those looking for new possibilities. We believe [your city] would be a great place to adopt a similar ordinance and provide a better, attainable housing alternative. After an initial quick glance at your Planning and Zoning website, it looks like your [medium density residential 1] through [medium density residential 2] zones would be ideal zones in which to implement a Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance. 

Reviewing some aerial maps, I found a project at the termination of [This] St. and [That] St. that looks to be an approximately 15-unit residential project with "adjoining walls". This may have been a perfect opportunity to provide a "fee-simple" alternative to new home ownership (see below). 


Small Lot Subdivision Illustration

 

When are you available to talk more about the economics of this type of project? Please let me know when you are free to schedule a follow-up phone call.  I look forward to talking to you soon. 

Here is a link to a page on our website where you can access the guide we developed regarding developing small lot subdivision projects in Los Angeles. 

Small Lot Subdivision Guide - Free Download

Here is a link to a page on our website where you can access useful documents from the City of Los Angeles pertaining to the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance. 

Free Download of Small Lot Subdivision Information

Thanks,

-Christian

 

On a side note, if you are a City Council member or city planner, have come across today’s blog post, and are interested in discussing or adopting a similar ordinance in your community, feel free to contact modative. We would be happy to help you draft a similar innovative planning policy or conduct a Small Lot Subdivision housing needs assessment for your city. It is possible to provide a creative “attainable” housing solution that will help create better living environments for you and your community. 

For any developers, architects, or concerned citizens out there who feel there is inadequate attainable housing in your city, feel free to contact us as well. Or, use my letter above as inspiration to contact your own City Council or planning representative. 

We will keep you updated on the Council District representative’s response!

Post by Christian Návar. Contributors to this post include Krystal Návar, Derek Leavitt and Michael Scott.

Tags: Los Angeles, los angeles architects, Property, Residential, Small Lot Subdivision, Development, Subdivisions, Housing, Planning

Modative Architecture Provides Stimulus Package

Posted by Christian Navar on Wed, Nov 17, 2010 @ 06:11 AM

Modative Fay Ave 2 Unit

Spent too much on land?

For years in our industry I used to hear how architects know close to nothing when it comes to staying on budget, that overspending is commonplace for most designers. With the severe downturn in the real estate industry it seems like architects finally aren’t the only ones who can be accused of overspending!

Like many Los Angeles architecture firms, many of our prize projects have been scrapped in the last couple of years. Our projects became victims of overspending, and this time, you can’t blame the architect for over-designing, ignoring budgets and having cost overruns.

These days it is now clear that spending too much on land and planning oversized projects has become the real project killer.

So, you bought too high you say? Now what?

So, you bought a property at the height of the building boom and now your budget numbers don’t  look so good and you need to put the project on hold? Hmm, if I had a dollar for every time I have heard that in the last year, Modative could bail us all out of this crisis.

Being designers, we of course naturally believe that you can design your way out of anything. Here at Modative, we believe that if the government hired more designers, or real problem solvers, we would need less “financial experts” and definitely less slow-moving bureaucrats. If you think members of the Obama Administration are the only ones offering bailouts these days, you should check out our new 2-unit small lot subdivision “stimulus package”.

Modative’s stimulus package

The project site is currently vacant land that sits between two other lots that combined were once part of a 7-unit small lot subdivision project on Fay Avenue in Los Angeles. After the economy crashed, the project was placed on hold, and our client found themselves with an overpriced and underutilized piece of dirt.

Fay Avenue Property

In classic boomtown fashion, the original project consisted of seven luxury three-story units that were slated to be between 1,750 and 1,900 square feet each. After the bust, the client asked us to reevaluate the site, specifically the vacant dirt lot, and propose a simple, cost-effective solution that would bring added value to this property which wasn’t generating any income.

Creative solutions can revive a project

This isn’t our only revisited post-downturn, multi-unit housing project currently on the boards. In fact many of our recent projects have come to us as previously-approved condominium projects designed by other firms. Aside from being asked to turn defunct condominium projects into small lot subdivisions, we hear the same thing over and over, how small can we make a residential unit and still have it be marketable?

In the case of the Fay Avenue project, we proposed starting out with just two very simple two-story, 1,000 square foot, 2 bedroom, 2.5 bath units that could be offered at a price point more favorable in the current marketplace. We then devised a creative phasing option, placing the proposed units on the site so that the owner could utilize the other two lots as part of a future phased expansion, that in the end will total 7 units. In the meantime, they could continue to rent the units on the other lots and wait for the economy and the current lending situation to improve. We have always believed in smaller units, but now, with the current state of the economy, we can finally get people to believe that bigger isn’t always better.

 

small lot subdivision phasing diagram

 

We were proud of our original 7-unit project, but sometimes you have to cut your losses and move on. In the meantime, we’ll continue to take pride in knowing that our redesigned 2-unit “stimulus package” will help provide an added income stream for our client.

An architecture professor of ours from USC once said, “I am teaching you how to solve problems, not so you will become good architects, but so you will become great politicians.” Well with the current unemployment rate in California hovering somewhere around 12.4%, anything Modative can do to be part of the solution is something to be proud of.

“The first phase of the Fay Avenue project is slated to begin construction in the Spring of 2011. The Obama administration is still running some calculations to determine the exact number of jobs this project will add once construction begins, but thanks to Modative, we are pretty sure not only will this project be beneficial to job creation, but maybe, just maybe, it will even help stimulate small businesses lending again!” - Unknown Politician

We plan to post project updates on our website regarding this project, so if you’re interested, continue to check back for more info.

Fay Avenue Property Rear

Contributors to this post include Derek Leavitt, AIA, Michael Scott and Krystal Návar.

Tags: Los Angeles, Modern Design, Property, Architectual Practice, home size, Small Lot Subdivision, small homes, Development, Fay Ave Art District dwellings, Multi Family Housing

12 Incredibly Obvious Things I Like About Small Homes

Posted by Derek Leavitt on Wed, Jun 3, 2009 @ 06:06 AM

In the spirit of the recent Los Angeles Times article discussing the downsizing of the average American home from 2,629 square feet (last year) to 2,419 square feet (this year), I thought I’d touch on my reasons for liking small homes:

1. Simple Math: If You Build Less, It Costs Less


Tight lending means that loans for big, expensive homes are difficult, if not impossible to come by. Every square foot you build costs more in construction materials, labor, permits, city fees, and dare I say it, architecture fees.

2. Resale Value


What? The Realtor rule has seemingly always been, that the larger the home, the better the value. But things have changed.

Building more can now price you out of the market.

Instead, try building only what you need, not what you perceive some mysterious future buyer will need.


3. Quality Over Quantity


About 10 years ago, Sarah Susanka introduced an idea to build better, not bigger, homes in her popular book, The Not So Big House.

Her philosophy is relevant today as the economic shift has lessened the appetite for McMansions in favor of more compact, better built homes - the type of home that you'll want to live in for a long time.

4. Energy Efficiency


Aside from the energy you'll save in construction, a small home is far more efficient over its' life span. The mechanical systems needed to heat and cool your home will cost less upfront and will have to work less to keep you comfortable inside.

5. Think About Trading Space For Power


At a construction cost of $250 per square foot, if you were to build just 80 less square feet, you would have the $20,000 it takes to add a very decent solar power system. And in most places, government rebates will help put a big dent in that $20k price tag.

6. Sustainability


This is a much broader topic that is tough to summarize in a quick list; so simply put, small homes use less resources.

7. Affordable Land

Like many major metropolitan areas, in my home town of Los Angeles, the difficult challenge of finding affordable property makes it tough for many to make that first key step towards building a new home.  If you're willing to go small, new opportunities present themselves in the form of more affordable undersized and odd lots that others may ignore.

8. Subdivide

You can also consider becoming a micro-developer by subdividing a larger lot and building a few homes: one for you and the others to sell to help pay for yours.

Small Lot Subdivision, which we have here in Los Angeles, is spreading as other municipalities realize its potential.

9. Keeping It Clean


A simple concept: small homes are easier and faster to clean. If you hire someone to clean, it will cost you less.

It's also not much fun cleaning rooms you never use.

10. Don't Forget the Furniture


Larger home = more furniture you have to buy.

Nice furniture = expensive.

Small home = less furniture needed = can afford better furniture.

11. Less Room For Junk


Quick Quiz

If I had less space in my house to store (fill in the blank), I would:

a) Pull it out of the closet and put it on display
b) Use it more often
c) Give it away to charity
d) Sell it on ebay or craigslist

The correct answer is that these are all good answers.

I love storage as much as anyone, but having too much can have some disadvantages as well.

12. You Can Always Add-On Later

Build what you can afford (& need) now. Plan for what you want later.

 

By no means is this a complete list. I would love to get some thoughts on this.

What spaces in your house do you not use?

What areas of your home do you wish were bigger? Smaller? 

 

At Modative, we're fans of small modern homes. We like designing them, even on tight budgets. Feel free to contact us if you're thinking about a small home. We can even help you find property.

Download a PDF of 12 Incredibly Obvious Things I Like About Small Homes

Tags: Los Angeles, Property, Small Lot Subdivision, small homes, Subdivisions, Affordable Housing, economy

Avoid Property Purchasing Pitfalls - Utilize an Architect

Posted by Derek Leavitt on Wed, Mar 4, 2009 @ 10:03 AM

From news reports to personal experiences, we are all now very aware that the real estate world has cooled dramatically, however, the dip in property price and increase in foreclosures has brought about a new round of opportunity. Those who are willing and able to gobble up these affordable properties are in a good position to reap the benefits in the long run. Unfortunately, however, in the last few years, we've seen plenty of mistakes in buying property that could have been avoided with a bit of help from an architect.

Utilize an Architect's Experience

People often falsely assume that they must own a property before contacting an architect. This can be a difficult error to overcome. Architects have experience in understanding zoning codes that affect the value and buildability of the property.

But My Broker Told Me...

There are many great real estate brokers out there, but there are also many not so good. Remember that a broker's end goal is to sell you a property and collect a commission. This often leads to giving you the most favorable view of a property in hopes that you'll close the deal quick and easy. Most brokers will do a very superficial code search on a property, but the problem is that zoning codes are not always so simple, nor are they the only factor in determining the development value of a property.

Beyond the Codes

Although a thorough zoning code check is an important first step, architects have experience beyond just an understanding of the codes. They can typically give you a quick idea of what the site will allow based on other factors or costs.

To give you a better feel of some potential pitfalls, let's look at a few examples that we've experienced:

Client Scenario A - Parking Counts

A few years back we had a young client named Greg come to us with a property in Los Angeles that was zoned RD2 (a  multi-family zone). Greg had already purchased this property under the assumption from his real estate agent that he could develop a four-unit condominium on the property.

In theory this was correct. The RD2 zone allowed a density of one unit for every 2,000 square feet of property and the property was 8,500 square feet in size. So yes, the code allowed four units, but there were other factors at play. The configuration of the lot, and the city's parking requirements made it impossible to properly park a four unit condo on the site. Although it may have worked with underground parking, the cost of going underground given the size and layout of the lot would have made the project infeasible.

So after analyzing all of this for Greg, we determined at most he could do a three-unit condominium. The development numbers didn't add up, so Greg had just purchased a property that was of little value to him. If he had contacted us sooner, we could have warned him and he could have found a better suited property or negotiated the price of that property down until it made financial sense.

Client Scenario B - Hillside

In Los Angeles, the search for cheap lands often leads to the hills. Not the glamorous cliff hanging homes one thinks of, but leftover raw land with severe slopes. A young couple, Claire and Sam  came to us a while back with one of these lots in mind. Their broker brought this property to their attention because it was cheap and had nothing built on it yet. To Claire and Sam it seemed like a dream property. The cheap land would allow them to build the small modern home they had been dreaming of.

Fortunately, Claire and Sam called us when they found this property. Aside from not meeting code requirements to build what they wanted, we explained to them that the added foundation costs to build on an unstable hill like this far outweighed the potential savings of the cheap land. Needless to say, they didn't purchase this particular hillside mess. We like to think that our quick advice saved them from this big financial mistake.

Free Research by an Architect

Not all scenarios are like this. These two just highlight some potential mistakes that can be made without getting an architect's help early in the process.

To help prevent some of these property purchasing pitfalls, we have added a free zoning code search to our web site. This service is available to current property owners and people searching for property in the Los Angeles area. Learning about a property's zoning code is an important first step in any potential project. A step that we are trying to make a little easier and more accessible.


TweetIt from HubSpot

Tags: Los Angeles, Property, website update, architect advice, Zoning Code Search, architecture resources

Southern California Fires

Posted by Derek Leavitt on Mon, Nov 17, 2008 @ 11:11 AM

As a very intense fire season continues to cause damage in Southern California, our thoughts are with those who have been displaced and lives upended by the recent fires. Since designing homes is such a large part of what we do here at Modative, we feel for those who have lost something so integral to their lives.

In an effort to help in the recovery, Modative is offering deep discounts on our architectural services for anyone affected by the Southern California fires. Whether rebuilding on the site of the loss or in a new location we are here to help. Please contact us if you are interested. www.modative.com.


A photo I took while driving down the 101 freeway during last year's fires.

Tags: Property, Residential, Sustainable Design, Fires, rebuilding

Malibu Property

Posted by Derek Leavitt on Mon, Jan 21, 2008 @ 18:01 PM

Just got word today of an off-market listing for an ocean front property in Malibu, CA. The property is developable as a home or two-unit. Feel free to contact me if you have any interest. [email protected]

Tags: Property, Malibu