Two weeks before their prefab home is scheduled to debut at Modernism Week, Joel and Meelena Turkel stand outside and watch as workers plaster their pool and level the newly poured concrete driveway.
Inside the 2,100-square-foot custom home, additional workers put finishing touches on the interiors while the couple offer a tour in preparation for the annual design festival in Palm Springs, a popular celebration of Midcentury Modern design.
Natives of Canada, the designers met in architecture school at MIT and recently relocated to the desert from Cambridge, Mass.
In addition to designing a series of high-end prefabricated residential homes for clients, the couple have built their first home, the Axiom Desert House, as an experiment in living and design.
“We wanted to create a living lab and show our clients what they can do,” says Joel, 49. “Palm Springs is a town that appreciates good architecture. We wanted to address high-quality contemporary living in a way that was not off-putting.”
Indeed, the house is more than an academic endeavor. Nor is it a weekend getaway. As more young families flock to the desert for its affordability, the couple plan to live here year-round with their two daughters, 3 and 6.
The home may be a creative pipe dream, but in a place like Southern California, where a custom home feels out of reach to so many, the idea of building a prefab home that is both beautiful and environmentally friendly is inspiring. The Turkel’s lab house is trying to find the balance between personal and professional as it serves the designers in their practice, their extended family and anyone interested in prefab design, net-zero energy, efficiency of space and progressive materials.
Built on a corner lot in the Racquet Club West neighborhood, the clean-lined midcentury-inspired home is divided into zones — live, work, sleep, play — and includes three modest bedrooms, three bathrooms, an office, a guest room/den and an open and airy great room that spills outdoors to a pool and shaded courtyard.
With several lots available in the neighborhood, the couple purchased the land for $95,000 and broke ground in fall 2017. (Turkel Design homes start at $850,000). After the foundation was ready, the house was trucked in as panels and erected in just 32 working days.
During a walk-through, the Turkels highlight the home’s many sustainable features: photovoltaic panels that provide electricity, concrete blocks to absorb heat, double-pane windows for energy efficiency, dramatic roof overhangs that will alleviate the hot desert sun, durable engineered wood, and concrete flooring to keep the house cool. And in one of their most satisfying achievements, the house is completely fossil-fuel-free.
Outside, the exterior of the house is clad in a combination of stucco, concrete block and thermally modified wood to address the climate. The pool is relatively large by today’s standards because outdoor living was a priority for Meelena, 38, after living in Massachusetts.
“I want my kids to be active,” she says as she walks by a ping-pong table and bocce ball court. “You can get it all here: hiking trails, access to the mountains. That’s part of why we moved here.”
To accommodate growing concerns about aging in place, the designers installed zero-threshold doors and showers, pocket doors, lift and slide windows, single-level concrete flooring and a raised spa for easy access.
Noting that “they can’t experiment with clients’ homes,” the couple had fun playing with Corian surfaces in the kitchen and bath as well as a thermally modified ash wall in the courtyard. (Corian, Dacor, Cerno, Marvin Windows and Resource Furniture are among the many brands that have partnered with the Axiom House).
Ultimately, their mission in Palm Springs is to spend more time living, says Joel: “We’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what a home should be. Where we can use less and live more in a space that invites interaction, and we can come together naturally, living in and outdoors. And we’re doing it against this incredibly soothing, beautiful backdrop.”
Modernism Week: Axiom Desert House tours
When: 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Feb. 22-24
Tickets: $30 (12 years of age and older). Cocktail party 6-8 p.m. Feb. 22. ($100)
Info: turkeldesign.com/axiom-desert-house or modernismweek.com
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Lisa Boone is a features writer for the Los Angeles Times. Since 2003, she has covered home design, gardening, parenting, houseplants, even youth sports. She is a native of Los Angeles.