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Looking to Build a Granny Flat in Your Backyard? Meet the Firms and Designs Pre-Approved in LA
07:10 AM | March 12, 2021
Favot is an award-winning journalist and adjunct instructor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She previously was an investigative and data reporter at national education news site The 74 and local news site LA School Report. She's also worked at the Los Angeles Daily News. She was a Livingston Award finalist in 2011 and holds a Master's degree in journalism from Boston University and BA from the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada.
Adding a backyard home in Los Angeles is now nearly as easy as buying a barbecue.
Homeowners who for years have wanted to build a granny flat in their backyard, but dreaded the red tape, can now choose from 20 pre-designed homes that the city has already approved for use.
The shift, made official last week, will speed up a weeks-long process and bring more badly needed units to an overpriced market. It also has the potential to elevate the 14 startups and firms building the next generation of homes.
The designs for the stand-alone residences range from a 200-square-foot studio to a 1,200-square foot, two-story, two-bedroom unit. And many of the homes are filled with design flourishes, reflecting the diverse architecture of the city, from a house in the silhouette of a flower to one with a spiral outdoor staircase leading to the roof.
It's no surprise. The program was spearheaded by Christopher Hawthorne, a former architecture critic at the Los Angeles Times and now the city's chief design officer.
The firms are primarily local and startup architecture and design firms, while others are well-known with a history of building granny flats, also know as accessory dwelling units, or ADUs.
The standard plans avoid the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety's typical four-to six-week review process and can allow approvals to be completed in as quickly as one day.
Some aspects of the plans can be modified to fit a homeowner's preferences. Eight other designs are pending approval.
Mayor Eric Garcetti believes by adding more such units, the city can diversify its housing supply and tackle the housing crisis. Recent state legislation made it easier to build the small homes on the lot of single-family residences. Since then, ADUs have made up nearly a quarter of Los Angeles' newly permitted housing units.
Because construction costs are relatively low for the granny flats – the pre-approved homes start at $144,000 and can go beyond $300,000 – the housing is generally more affordable. The median home price in L.A. County in January was $690,000.
Here's a quick look at the designs approved so far:
Abodu, based in Redwood City in the Bay Area, exclusively designs backyard homes. In 2019, it worked with the city of San Jose on a program similar to the one Los Angeles is undertaking.
In October, it closed a seed funding round of $3.5 million led by Initialized Capital.
It has been approved for a one-story 340-square-foot studio, a one-story one-bedroom at 500 square feet, and a one-story, 610-square-foot two-bedroom.
The pricing for the studio is $189,900, while the one-bedroom costs $199,900 and the two-bedroom is $259,900.
Amunátegui Valdés Architects
Led by Cristobal Amunátegui and Alejandro Valdés, the firm was founded in 2011 and has offices in Los Angeles and Santiago, Chile. Amunátegui is an assistant professor at the Department of Architecture and Urban Design at UCLA.
The firm designs work in various scales and mediums, including buildings, furniture and exhibitions.
Its one-story, two-bedroom with a covered roof deck 934-square-foot unit is pending approval from the city.
Connect Homes has a 100,000-square foot factory in San Bernardino and an architecture studio in Downtown L.A.
It specializes in glass and steel homes and has completed 80 homes in California. Its designs have an aesthetic of mid-century modern California residential architecture.
It has two one-bedroom models pre-approved by the city, one is 460 square feet, which costs $144,500 with a total average project cost of $205,000. The other is 640 square feet, which costs $195,200 with a total project cost of $280,000.
The Los Angeles-based architectural firm founded in 2010 describes itself as having a "bold and irreverent vision." Its projects include urban infill ground-up offices to single-family homes, adaptive re-use of derelict commercial buildings and renovations of historic landmarks.
Its pre-approved design, named "Midnight Room," is a guest house/ studio. Its bedroom can be left open for a loft feel or enclosed as a separate room. The design is a one-story, one-bedroom at 454 square feet.
Escher GuneWardena Architecture
Founded in Los Angeles in 1996, Escher GuneWardena Architecture has received international recognition and has collaborated with contemporary artists, worked on historical preservation projects and more.
The company has been approved for two different one-story, one- or two-bedroom units, one at 532 square feet with an estimated cost of $200,000 and another at 784 square feet with an estimated cost of $300,000. The firm noted the costs depend on site conditions and do not include soft costs. Those could add 10% to 12% to the total construction costs.
First Office is an architecture firm based in Downtown Los Angeles. Its approved ADUs will be built using prefabricated structural insulated panels, which allow for expedited construction schedules and high environmental ratings.
The interior finishes include concrete floors, stainless steel counters and an occasional element of conduit.
There are five options:
- A one-story studio, 309 to 589 square feet
- A one-story one-bedroom, 534 to 794 square feet
- And a one-story two-bedroom, 1,200 square feet
Fung + Blatt Architects
Fung + Blatt Architects is a Los Angeles-based firm founded in 1990.
The city has approved its 795-square-foot, one-story, one-bedroom unit with a roof deck. It estimates the construction cost to be $240,000 to $300,000, excluding landscape, site work and the solar array. Homeowners can also expect other additional costs.
Taalman Architecture/ IT House Inc.
The design team behind "IT House" is Los Angeles-based studio Taalman Architecture. Over the past 15 years, IT House has built more than 20 homes throughout California and the U.S.
The IT House ADU standard plans include the tower, bar, box, cube, pod and court.
The city has approved four options, including:
- A two-story including mechanical room, 660 square feet
- A two-story including mechanical room, 430 square feet
- A one-story studio, 200 square feet
- A one-story including mechanical room, 700 square feet
The firm also has another two projects pending approval: a 360-square-foot one-story studio and a one-story, three-bedroom at 1,149 square feet.
LA Más is a nonprofit based in Northeast Los Angeles that designs and builds initiatives promoting neighborhood resilience and elevating the agency of working-class communities of color. Homeowners who are considering their design must commit to renting to Section 8 tenants.
The city has approved two of LA Más' designs: a one-story, one-bedroom, 528 square feet unit and a one-story, two-bedroom, 768 square feet unit. The firm has another design for a one-story studio pending approval. That design would be the first 3D-printed ADU design in the city's program.
Massachusetts-based Jennifer Bonner/MALL designed a "Lean-to ADU" project, reinterpreting the stucco box and exaggerated false front, both Los Angeles architectural mainstays.
The design has been approved for a 525-square-foot one-story, one-bedroom unit with a 125-square-foot roof deck.
sekou cooke STUDIO
New York-based sekou cooke STUDIO is the sole Black-owned architectural firm on the project.
"The twisted forms of this ADU recalls the spin and scratch of a DJ's records" from the early 90s, the firm said.
Its design, still pending approval, is for a 1,200-square-foot, two bedroom and two bathroom can be adapted to a smaller one-bedroom unit or to include an additional half bath.
New York-based SO-IL was founded in 2008. It has completed projects in Leon, Seoul, Lisbon and Brooklyn.
Its one-story, one-bedroom 693-square-foot unit is pending approval. It is estimated the construction cost will be between $200,000 and $250,000.
Los Angeles-based Welcome Projects has worked on projects ranging from buildings, houses and interiors to handbags, games and toys.
Its ADU is nicknamed The Breadbox "for its curved topped walls and slight resemblance to that vintage counter accessory."
It has been approved for a one-story, one-bedroom 560-square-foot unit.
Founded in 2004, wHY is based in Los Angeles and New York City. It has taken on a landmark affordable housing and historic renovation initiative in Watts.
Its one-story, one- or two-bedroom 480 to 800-square-foot unit is pending approval.
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10:30 PM | October 20, 2022
Photo by Samson Amore
After a baseball career spanning 14 years, former Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Shawn Green decided it was time for a pivot.
Instead of targeting the typical route for former pro athletes and opting to become a commentator or analyst, Green chose to found Santa Monica-based Greenfly, a startup that provides a cloud-based media file sharing platform for a range of clientele from sports teams to retail stores.
Co-founded with CEO Daniel Kirschner, who previously served at Activision Blizzard as head of corporate affairs, Green launched Greenfly in 2014—a decade after he ended his season with the Dodgers.
“I always loved tech, so I figured I know, I want to reinvent myself and explore new things,” Green told panel host and Metropolis CEO Alex Israel at the 2022 dot.LA Summit regarding why he chose to start Greenfly. “The light bulb went off [and I thought] so why don't we become a [software as a service] company, and license our tech to sports networks.”
The 1999 Gold Glove winner and Stanford alumnus said he had dabbled with several startup ideas prior to settling on Greenfly’s concept.
“The first big thing we did was March Madness, and we did a deal with CBS and Turner,” Green said. After that trial run, Greenfly linked with Turner to fully license its software. Green said Greenfly works with the “top 10 biggest sports platforms in the world,” including the NBA, MLB and NHL.
Greenfly’s software platform lets users share files across social media, as well as capture and create content in the app. It also integrates with other content services like Getty Images and Dropbox. The company’s customers include the Dodgers, the San Jose Sharks and Paris Saint-Germain in addition to a number of consumer brands, including massage gun retailer Hyperice.
During the panel, Israel asked Green what key lessons he learned from pro baseball helped inform his career as a startup founder. “The most important thing I learned is you fail a lot,” Green said. “That’s helped a lot with my mindset as a startup, because there’s all sorts of things happening, all of a sudden things flip on a dime.”
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Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He holds a degree in journalism from Emerson College and previously covered technology and entertainment for TheWrap and reported on the SoCal startup scene for the Los Angeles Business Journal. Send tips or pitches to email@example.com and find him on Twitter @Samsonamore.
05:00 AM | November 01, 2022
Located roughly a hundred miles east of San Diego, the Salton Sea is California’s largest landlocked body of water, for now.
Measuring 5 miles across and 35 miles long in its current form, the lake was created by diverting water from the Colorado River into the region for agricultural purposes. Once a vacation destination renowned for its wildlife and wetlands, a series of environmental mishaps and mismanagement have left the lake toxically salty, shrinking and often malodorous. Conditions have gotten so bad that Palm Springs Life Magazine called the region’s transformation “the biggest environmental disaster in California history” in March of 2020.
But against this unlikely backdrop, new life—or at least new industry—is scrambling to set up shop in the region. The Salton Sea, it turns out, is rich with lithium, an element that has taken center stage in the world’s transition to clean energy and its ever-growing demand for batteries. From smartphones to electric vehicles, there’s a pretty good chance that the last battery you used had lithium ions inside. Prices for the metal reached an all time high in September, and futures are up more than 400% since the start of 2021. With Biden’s new economic policy outlined in the Inflation Reduction Act, there are strong financial incentives to move battery production back to North America.
If that’s going to happen the Salton Sea could very well become the lithium capital of North America, or to paraphrase Governor Gavin Newsom, the region could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” and the players are already starting to assemble.
Currently, there are three companies attempting to set up plants in the Salton Sea for direct lithium extraction: EnergySource Minerals, Controlled Thermal Resources and BHE Renewables, a branch of Berkshire Hathaway. All three companies have similar business strategies from a high level, all of which involve geothermal power plants. These plants, which are common in many parts of the world, draw hot, salty water from deep in the ground to create steam which drives a turbine to produce electricity. What makes the Salton Sea so special is that its geothermal brines just happen to contain lithium.
In a 2017 study, researchers from the U.S. DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy analyzed more than 2,000 samples of geothermal fluid from U.S. sources and found that only 1% had significant lithium concentration. This rare confluence of geothermal activity and lithium presence provides an opportunity for companies to generate electricity and mine lithium simultaneously.
Beyond their marriage of geothermal energy and lithium extraction, the three companies begin to diverge.
According to former dot.LA engagement editor Luis Gomez — whose newsletter Lithium Valle, is essential reading on this topic — EnergySource seems to be out in front early.
“They claim to have the technology that’s patented, they claim to have done the research, they claim to have the funding, and they claim they're ready to go and start production,” says Gomez. “They are kind of considered the canary in the coal mine.”
According to a report from the United States Department of Energy, EnergySource plans to eventually scale production up to over 20,000 metric tons of lithium hydroxide per year using its proprietary Integrated Lithium Adsorption Desorption technology.
Construction on the plant was slated to start earlier this year, but has been delayed. EnergySource has said publicly that lithium production might begin in the second quarter of 2024, but it’s unclear whether this date will also be pushed back. The company has a long history of operating in the region, having run the John L. Featherstone geothermal plant since 2012. The new venture into lithium would leverage that same plant, but without more details about how their proprietary technology works, there’s not much to do but wait and see.
One potential problem facing all three lithium extraction companies is that the Salton Sea geothermal brines are not the same as the brines in evaporation ponds similar to those in Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, where more than half of the world’s lithium is produced. Specifically, the deep geothermal brines in the Salton Sea contain more silica and transition elements, which may complicate the chemistry of purifying the lithium. Still, many researchers are extremely bullish on the prospect of tapping into these reserves. Alex Grant, The Principal at Jade Cove, a research organization focusing on direct lithium extraction technologies, says that much of the skepticism surrounding the technology can be attributed to competing financial interests that are trying to squash the nascent tech’s potential in favor of an established method.
Lithium Mines in the Atacama Salt Flats, Chile from an altitude of 15km via Google Earth. The facility is about 10km wide.
For its part, BHE Renewables, operating as CalEnergy, runs a fleet of 10 geothermal plants in the Imperial Valley. The company had previously announced its intent to set up a direct lithium extraction demonstration plant sometime before the end of 2022 to assess the viability of lithium extraction. If that pilot program goes well, the company could build a commercial-scale facility as early as 2026 with a projected annual capacity of 90,000 metric tons of lithium.
Obviously, having the backing of Berkshire Hathaway comes with advantages and capital. Add into the equation another $15 million in DoE grant money obtained last winter, and BHE appears to be well positioned as a major player in the long term.
Finally, there’s Controlled Thermal Resources. As the only company not already operating a geothermal business in the region, CTR is something of an outsider and dark horse. By 2024, the company hopes to build both a geothermal energy plant and a direct lithium extraction plant to operate in parallel, projecting a capacity to extract 300,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent annually by 2030. As dot.LA previously reported, Controlled Thermal Resources has partnered with Statevolt, a company that intends to build a $4 billion gigafactory nearby that will run on power from CTR’s geothermal plant and make batteries from the lithium it extracts. It’s a beautiful closed-loop business model. But again, all of this relies on the direct lithium extraction technology, and details are scant.
According to Gomez, despite the typically cut-throat nature of the energy industry, the relationship between the three upstarts in the Salton Sea is often surprisingly cooperative at the moment.
“They want the others to succeed because it kind of gives them the confidence that their technology is also eventually going to succeed,” he says. “It gives confidence to investors.”
Which is all to say, there may well be space for all three companies if the technology is as solid as they claim. If that’s the case, the Salton Sea and its surrounding region may have yet another miraculous transformation up its sleeve.
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lithiumenergysourcecontrolled thermal resourcesbhe renewablessalton seaelectric vehiclessouthern califironia
David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.
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