USC architecture alums make a big splash by going small
When three friends from the USC School of Architecture’s Class of 2000 decided to start their own practice in Los Angeles in 2006, they couldn’t have picked a less auspicious time. They didn’t know it, but a housing bust and recession were just around the corner.
Derek Leavitt, Christian Návar and Michael Scott had the misfortune of bad timing, but they overcame it with a shrewd decision to focus on small-lot subdivisions, a rebuke to McMansions that have modest footprints and expand vertically: Homes for six families can be built on one 8,000-square-foot lot. The trio’s new company, called Modative, promoted modern, two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom homes as compact as 1,000 square feet.
The idea is to combat sprawl by building on small lots near retail centers and transportation hubs, which also improves the pedestrian experience. “No city needs this more than Los Angeles,” Leavitt said.
Because forward-thinking planners had approved small-lot subdivision ordinances for the city of Los Angeles in 2004, the trio was able to put its ideas into practice right away. As the economy tanked and architects dependent on large individual commissions suffered, Modative was able to weather the storm. Sticking to their guns through the tough times really paid off, the three alums said.
Their small-is-beautiful work has garnered local and national attention. A project on Fay Avenue in Culver City was featured in the Los Angeles Times. The partners also spoke on small-lot subdivisions at an American Institute of Architects state convention in Phoenix and led tours of their projects during the recent American Planning Association national convention.
Currently, Modative has 16 projects, totaling 74 residential units, under way in its small Los Angeles office, with the help of Krystal Návar (Christian’s wife) and three recently hired full-time associates.
The three credit their USC training and contacts for a good deal of their success. Leavitt and Scott minored in business administration at the USC Marshall School of Business, which helped them think like entrepreneurs. Both also spent a semester studying at the School of Architecture’s program in Italy. Scott spent summers interning at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, honing his technical and computer-aided design skills. After graduation, Leavitt and Scott worked for Los Angeles area architectural firms.
Návar stayed at USC for his master’s in architecture, then worked as a furniture designer and for a contractor before doing innovative home and office designs at a Hermosa Beach architectural studio.
While at USC, they were drawn to professors who had active practices on the side.
Scott said David Gray was one of the teachers who forced students to think larger than the designs.
“He encouraged us to develop commercial projects that were owner/builder. He kept telling us we could have a bigger impact on architecture by also being involved on the development side,” Scott said.
“We learned how to build a career, as well as build houses,” said Leavitt, who said they all were inspired by Kate Diamond, whom he called “the toughest teacher ever.” Diamond would invite students to her architecture office on weekends to learn from her projects that were under way, he said.
Even their social ties at USC helped. All three belonged to the same fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, and their brothers became clients and contacts for future work.
The three described their housing units as “attainable,” not “affordable,” since they currently start in the $600,000 range. They would like to trim the per-unit cost to the mid-$500,000s, and to that end, they started their own construction company, Modative Build, and now prefer to accept only projects that they can also build.
By having the designers see projects through to the end, expensive change orders are minimized, and “there is no lapse of project knowledge on the construction site,” Scott said.
Návar said their housing units are meant to appeal to young professionals who are being priced out of the Los Angeles market.
“We’ve had many friends with advanced degrees and professional careers migrating out of the state because they can’t afford housing,” he said. “It’s important for us to keep their energy here instead of expatriating it to other states and countries.”
The three see small-lot subdivisions as a tool that could revitalize the city the way that brownstones have done in Chicago and elsewhere.
For those who complain about the increased density, Leavitt countered that Los Angeles has constantly been subdivided. “Remember, it started as ranchos,” he said/
The architects would like to include more green space in their small-lot plans but are stymied by city regulations that demand space for two vehicles per unit, as well as additional square footage so vehicles can back up. Vehicle requirements alone eat up a 20 x 44-foot patch of real estate for each housing unit.
Even with the move toward mass transit and bicycle commuting, the three don’t see cities relaxing this requirement. “Actually, cities want you to add even more parking — for guests,” Návar said.
The three are well aware that their fledgling firm has beaten the odds during a tough economy
“Our accountant, who was in our fraternity, told us he had seven architectural clients when he started doing our books,” Návar said. “Now we are the only ones still in business.”