Urbane Living

St. Louis designer Rocio Romero's prefab homes are generating a buzz across the nation

In February Shane and Holly Thompson decided it was time for a change of scenery. Craving greener pastures and unconventional digs, the adventurous couple began planning to jettison their 1950s-era brick ranch home and the suburban familiarity of Crestwood for the outer reaches of the St. Louis area.

"It's so exciting," says Holly, "and you want to share it with the world, because you feel that this is bigger than a regular house." Holly, an interior designer, is describing the couple's yet-to-be-assembled modern kit house, which was designed by Rocio Romero, a St. Louis designer who has gained a national following for her pioneering work designing urbane prefab dwellings.

"We're so excited," adds Shane, a computer networker and woodworking hobbyist. "I need to put a spit-guard over [the plans] because I drool over [them] every night."

"I've always wanted to make high-end modern design 
affordable and easy to attain": Romero, sitting outside 
her LV home.
Jennifer Silverberg
"I've always wanted to make high-end modern design affordable and easy to attain": Romero, sitting outside her LV home.
LV home's front entrance
LV home's front entrance

The 33-year-old Romero first gained raves with her prefab prototype, a 960-square-foot vacation home built four years ago for her parents in Laguna Verde, Chile. The spare house received significant attention in the New York Times and the influential design magazine Dwell. "I have to say that it was probably one of the most popular houses we published -- we just got tons of inquires," recalls Dwell editor-in-chief and prefab expert Allison Arieff.

Since the national write-ups, the fanfare surrounding Romero's design has only increased, and even more buzz was generated after the 2003 unveiling of the 1,150-square-foot kit house she and her husband, Cale Bradford, built in Perryville. The LV home (named for Laguna Verde) drew the attention of such publications as Time, Newsweek and Elle -- so much so that droves of people from throughout the nation have journeyed to this little Missouri town, an hour south of St. Louis, for Romero's bimonthly open houses.

"I've always wanted to make high-end modern design affordable and easy to attain," says Romero, a warm and engaging Los Angeles transplant who holds a master's degree in architecture from the esteemed Southern California Institute of Architecture. "There is a generation, especially a younger generation, that doesn't want to buy a Hansel and Gretel home."

For Romero, affordability is the key. Her LV kit costs just over $31,000 (the 1,400-square-foot LV Large, or LVL, costs $39,000) and includes the materials for the home's only structural interior wall and its external shell, excluding windows and roofing. All told, her Perryville home cost about $130,000 to build, complete with site improvements, flat-screen television sets, appliances and a commercial heating and air-conditioning system.

Designing and constructing prefab buildings is not a new concept. In fact, according to Arieff's book, Prefab, this type of housing dates back to at least 1624, when a panelized wood house was shipped from England to Cape Ann, Massachusetts. But Romero's LV embraces both the sleek lines of modern architecture and the public's recent desire to have style meet function -- for cheap (à la Philippe Starck for Target and Todd Oldham for La-Z-Boy).

"It would be nice to think that [the Romero LV] isn't such a radical revision, but in many ways it is," says Peter MacKeith, associate dean of Washington University's School of Architecture. "And to stake this out and accomplish just this one, I think, is already significant."

The starkness inside Romero and Bradford's LV is striking: With white walls and Pergo flooring throughout, the place, perhaps rightfully so, resembles a museum. The LV's dining area is made complete with an oval Ikea dining table that displays Romero's pressed-metal business cards. And the minimalist interior is broken up by bedroom and bathroom walls, but only one of those walls is required for structural reasons; the others are a personal choice. Stainless-steel appliances, cabinetry and shelving gleam within the shotgun kitchen. Nothing interferes with the austerity, save for the fresh-cut flowers near the guest-bathroom sink.

But the most prominent parts of the interior are the glass front door and the floor-to-drop-ceiling sliding-glass doors along the entire back of the house. "The outdoor landscape," says Romero, "really becomes the interior landscape; your living room is then also extended to the outdoors."

Covered in silver Galvalume panels, which hide unsightly gutters and downspouts, the exterior, with its 90-degree angles and seemingly flat roof, sharply contrasts with the rolling hills and corn-strewn valleys of the natural landscape on Romero's 69-acre spread. The feel is industrial. While the LV has a certain trailer-home ambiance from the front -- albeit a floating, ultramodern one -- this is no place for trash.

"It's also a very lofty feeling," explains Romero. "It kind of brings a 'lofty' sensibility, but in an environment that's very natural for people that like the outdoors."

Because of the insulated glass, the thickness of the walls and a roof that rests on paper insulation board, the LV is remarkably energy efficient. "It's awesome," Romero enthuses. "We haven't paid an [electric] bill that has been over $120."

While building the home, Romero and Bradford lived at the Perryville Super 8. Romero says they're a tidy couple: "Every now and then, we'll let loose, and we'll have clothes on the floor, but just if we're feeling lazy. I guess we are, for the most part, very minimalist, Cale and I. We don't like to have clutter, so we don't own much." They pitch a lot of stuff, with the exception of personal mementos. But Romero confesses: "And then, of course, at my office, I have thousands of books and thousands of papers. All my mess is in my work area."

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