Urbane Living

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


Romero says she first knew she wanted to be a designer as a nineteen-year-old undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley. The inspiration came to her during a trek through Europe. "If anything, buildings just started to talk to me -- in that respect -- as being really important containers of life and of being sort of representations of culture, and housing culture, and housing people."

Aside from European architecture, Romero says her influences include Joseph Eichler, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and St. Louis-born Charles and Ray Eames. Van der Rohe's famously airy Farnsworth house was recently purchased by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and other preservationists for $7.5 million -- a far cry from $130,000. But of course, the Farnsworth house is now considered a masterpiece.

Setting up shop in southern Missouri was purely a practical decision and didn't owe to any longing for a rural life. From the middle of the nation, says Romero, it's easy and affordable for her to transport the kit homes anywhere. Romero purchases most of the materials that make up the LV kit from the Buchheit company, a Midwestern farm- and building-supply chain headquartered in Perryville. By going through the company, the designer says, "We were able to really substantially get some savings that we could pass along to our customers."

Romero recognizes that the word "prefab" makes some people cringe. "The thing is, in the United States earlier on, prefab was a derogatory term, because it was all about cookie-cutter, gross-looking things, and it was stigmatized," she explains. "I think in architecture school, just reading about Eichler and reading about the Case Study homes and knowing that [those architects] had tried it and done it, and that it was possible definitely was very inspirational to me."

In addition to the kit she sold to Shane and Holly Thompson, Romero has sold three other LVLs and six LVs to like-minded artsy types all over the nation. A writer in New York plans to build an LV there; a graphic designer and a photographer plan to build in Napa; an LV sold to an artist in Michigan is in progress; some Los Angeles residents plan to build in Topanga Canyon; and two people in South Carolina recently bought a kit.

The kit home's first purchasers -- an architectural photographer and a musician -- are building their LV as a vacation home in the mountains of Virginia. Photographer Jennifer Watson and her husband, Barry Bless, have dubbed the home Luminhaus and are documenting their construction progress in an online, testimonial-style photo diary (at www.rocioromero.com).

Watson hopes the LV will provide a welcome respite from the busyness of their current home, which is two and a half hours away in Richmond. "A lot of times, when I come home, I feel overloaded when I walk in that door, and I see all this stuff," she says. "I really wish I could just have a house that's minimalistic, that's small, that every space is being used. And the LV home is, I think, the answer to it." Watson calls the LV a work of art and even had Romero autograph some of the wall panels before they were shipped to Virginia.

Romero thinks the LV wave may continue to grow as more people from around the nation purchase the home. "All these first people that are doing it are kind of my geographic pioneers, because then the people that will be involved with those projects will have more familiarity with my product, and I'll be able to refer [new customers] to those contractors," she says.

The designer predicts that in ten years the LV may have taken on a life of its own. She's already working toward that end and plans to offer add-ons such as cabinetry, windows, an awning structure, a detached garage, a carport and an outdoorsy "adult tree-house" called the Fish Camp.

While Romero's home is unconventional, at least aesthetically, the LV doesn't completely change the way people live in a home, either. It's designed for a single family, much like the homes many Americans live in today. Says Wash. U.'s Peter MacKeith: "The box looks different than others, but nonetheless, it is right in line with villas in the Italian countryside, as much as it might be with at least the initial idea of the suburb, [in] which everybody gets their own lot, and they can do whatever they want on their own lot."

MacKeith adds that Americans "want things that are less expensive, and at the same time, we want things that have at least the atmosphere of uniqueness to them, which is why Ikea has such a great value for many people, and actually Target has a great value, because you feel like you're getting design, but you're also getting something for a good price, because it's been manufactured in a repetitive way."

As for the Thompsons, their search continues to find the perfect piece of land for their LVL. "You know," says Shane, "there are a ton of three-acre lots out there, but a lot of restrictions. And you know people with 'McMansions' don't want to look at modern architecture."

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