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Building modern on a slope in the Bay Area

by jamie kripke last modified Mar 13, 2012 02:39 AM
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Building modern on a slope in the Bay Area

Posted by jamie kripke at December 01. 2007

I've been looking for information on slope specific modern / prefab / modular / kit home designs for California, and have read through whatever I can find online and in the mags.  Most of the relevant information is posted either here or on the FabPrefab forums, but it is scattered widely throughout different conversations spanning several years.


I live in the Bay Area, and most of the land that is still available is upslope, downslope, has access issues, utility issues, and presents a significant number of obstacles.  Lots of people here would love to buy a lot and build a home, but are intimidated by the process of securing a buildable lot.


I'm starting this conversation in the hopes of bringing together information on the following:


- finding lots + land in the Bay Area

- affordable slope specific designs

- foundation work on a sloped lot

- planning and zoning on Bay Area hillsides

- any and all creative approaches to a hillside project


(or maybe this collection of information already exists and I just haven't found it yet....)


Thanks in advance for your post.

Re: Building modern on a slope in the Bay Area

Posted by Michael Feezor at December 01. 2007

Sander Architects out of Venice, CA has an excellent program for "prefab" called "Hybrid House".  They were the best solution for my property which has many hillside and coastal challenges.  On their site my house is labeled "Twist House".  Whitney Sander (principle) and wife Catherine (handles interior design challenges) have been a blessing to my wife and I for there dedication in respecting our needs and budgetary constraints.  Their approach, execution and  payment  schedule has been a pleasure to deal with.

or to follow my play by play.




Re: Building modern on a slope in the Bay Area

Posted by jamie kripke at December 01. 2007

Hi Mike -- thanks for sharing this.  Your place is beautiful -- a very simple, elegant solution.  Of course I have a million questions, but some of the first that come to mind:

- Do the components of the hybrid house system arrive prebuilt on a truck that require a certain width road that is unencumbered by switchbacks, power lines, trees, etc?  That is the main problem here -- just getting everything to the site, then having somewhere to put it. 

- How big is your lot, how much of it is flat?

- Does the site pose any problems with soil / seismic, or other unexpected foundation costs?

- Can you share any info on your total budget, or the $/sq. ft you anticipate?

- Have you hired a GC or are you doing it yourself?

Thanks in advance,


Re: Building modern on a slope in the Bay Area

Posted by Michael Feezor at December 02. 2007

Hi Jamie; the Hybrid House because it is "Part prefab, all custom" can be constructed multiple ways.  Ours is a steel frame, similar to the way some of Greg La Vardera's homes are designed.  The components that wrap the house may vary from SIP panels to concrete fiber board to corragated aluminum - this a portion of the "all custom" part.

To answer your first question: No; the parts are not preassembled on a truck.  The steel supports will arrive on a truck ready for immediate installation when they arrive.  Our lot would not be accessable with parts of a home preassembled on the back of a truck.  To best describe the process, would be to refer to Greg's New Mexico house blog on this site -- yes a crane will be necessary to lift these supports into place.

My lot is only 8500 sq' (thats all I could afford with an ocean view).  The entire lot has its share of challenges that Sander Architects made quick work of assuring me that just about anything with the proper foundation was feasable.  The lot jumps up off the street a steep 16', then levels to a flat area, then again slopes downward in a more gentle fashion.  The foundation of my house will be one of the most expensive segments of the construction process - lots and lots of concrete reinforcement, although with the Hybrid House format were still within budget.

As far as siesmic and geological issues go, we lucked out again.  At the begining of our process (after I purchased the lot) I hired the best Geological Engineering firm I could afford to write a preliminary geological report.  It turns out that they had done the next house over several years back and were very familiar with the area and the report on our land was very favorable to build on with the report showing all prehistoric landslides and seismic faults in the area.  As I did this backwards, I would recommend that a geo report be done before the close of escrow.  I kept this report with me when we interviewed prospective architectual firms - a very important report for hillside development.

Before I disclose the budget keep in mind that this is Malibu and land value is as random as the recent fires picking which homes were going to burn.  I went into the project wanting to spend no more than 1M (did I mention the ocean view $$$) including the land purchase, preliminary out of pocket expenses, architect fees and construction.  As the project progressed we are now planning on no more than 800K.  The cost of the land and the foundation and architect fees are the three items that have had the most impact on our expense report.  Even though our foundation will be somewhat traditional we are budgeting approximatly $175-$200/sq'.  This still may vary as the pool and interior finishes have not yet been finalized.

No I have not hired a GC as we've hired Sander-Architects to design/build.  This is not to say that we're not watching these costs; we've decided that they (Sander Architect) know the process in which they are designing best and have seen first hand finished homes and the cost associated with each build (one as low as $120/sq', foundation included).  Every project is so unique, even the delivered pre-fabs that this is the hardest thing for anyone to estimate from job to job.  Spend the time do your research and you will eliminate many unexpected surprises that almost always add wasted expense to your bottom line.

Sorry for the long winded post, I hope it shines some light on your mountain of questions.  If it makes you feel any better I am still doing research and answering an endless laundry list of questions.  In the next months I hope to start the permit process.



Re: Building modern on a slope in the Bay Area

Posted by jamie kripke at December 02. 2007

Hey Mike -- thanks for the response.  A few more questions.  How do the costs of preparing your foundation compare to the original cost of the lot? 

Also, how limited were you by road access in finding a lot you liked?  It seems that getting a crane up some of those roads above Malibu could be challenging.  Did you find the lot, then design the house, or did you have an idea of your house and spend time looking for the right lot? 

Thanks in advance for your reply, I look forward to following your project as it moves forward....




Re: Building modern on a slope in the Bay Area

Posted by Michael Feezor at December 02. 2007

Jamie -- the cost of the foundation is in direct response to the terrain of the land, so the cost is not definitive untill the foundation itself has been designed.  What is a definate, is if you choose to build on a hillside you will almost always pay more for the engineering and construction costs.  If there are other homes in the vicinity than that might be a good sign -- I would at the very least look at what is already built in the area.  After that your design needs should not be limiting.

As for the lot location, we are on a narrow (10'-15' width), winding paved road with phone, electric and water in the street.  I am responsible for septic and natural gas (tank).  Getting large equipment to the site was not a concern as we figured most of the roads in the area have to be accessable to fire trucks and such.  There is the above ground electric and phone lines but we have been assured that they should not be of concern.

I settled on an architect after the purchase of the land, nearly one year after the close of escrow.  It just took me that long to figure out exactly what this house needed to accomplish for myself and family (wife and 5yr daughter 2 dogs, 2 horses which will be stabled near by).


Re: Building modern on a slope in the Bay Area

Posted by Tommy Suriwong at February 19. 2008

Thanks so much for starting this thread.  I'm in the process of shopping for land that I will hold for a few years before building on.  I'm very new to real estate and would like to know a few things:


1)  What questions do I need to ask?  I hear people speaking of things like soil reports and easements, but not sure what these are.  Is there a good list of things to ask/how to interpret the results somewhere?


2)  A property I found is basically a giant mound, very steep upslope.  It's about 10000 sqft.  There are homes in the area that are very nice and definitely worth more than a 1.2-1.5 million.  The land is only about 1/10 of that.  What sort of gotchas am I looking for?  There are plans and permits approved for the property, but they are for an ugly mediterranean style behemoth.  I'd like to build something with a modern sensibility with very low energy use.  So the question here is can I change those plans and use the same permits?  Is that a royal pain in the behind?  How much would that cost (aside from the architectural work...or is that included in the architect's fee?).  Do the permits expire?


Sorry to be such a noob, but this will be my first real estate purchase and I just want to make sure I dot the i's and cross the t's before I sign over a chunk of my life savings :)

Re: Building modern on a slope in the Bay Area

Posted by William K at April 10. 2009

Michael, I am curious about the progress on your Malibu House, is it completed? If it is, how much is the final cost? Is it within your budget? Would you recommend Sander Architects? I am currently actively looking for land/fixer-upper on the Westside and planning to build a modern house with limited budget (about $400K excluding land) Thanks in advance!

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