The New Marketplace for Mid-Century Modern Plans

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Used with permission from Houseplans.com

If you follow architecture and design publications, you’ve probably already heard that a company in Southern California is selling plans for houses designed by architect Richard Neutra. The boutique real estate firm The Agency issued a press release to that effectat the end of April. While the prospect of creating new versions of classic homes is an exciting one, it helps to first understand how this business works, what you’re paying for, and what you’re buying.

The Neutra announcement sounds a bit like the service offered by HousePlans.com, which sells classic plans including a few Eichlers designed by Claude Oakland. Basically the idea is that the seller gets permission from whoever holds the rights to the plans, and then they work out some deal to share the income from the sale. Plus, the seller gets to include a fee to update the plans to modern codes.

It’s a great idea, in theory, but Houseplans.com editor-in-chief Dan Gregory told me they haven't yet sold an Eichler plan. Nor had the Neutra folks when I spoke to partner Ari Chazanas last week.

The Neutra plans currently sit in UCLA’s Special Collections, where curator Simon Elliott said Richard Neutra’s son, Dion Neutra, holds the rights to them. According to University of Georgia law professor David Shipley, architectural works created before 1990 are protected as graphic works, but the buildings themselves aren’t protected under copyright.

Elliott explained that the rights holder controls what kind of duplication the Special Collections archive will do. The family of Eichler architect A. Quincy Jones, for example, which holds the copyright to his works stored by UCLA, allows the archive to duplicate plans for remodel and renovation, but not for new construction. Neutra is stricter.

“Just as the Jones children have the rights to to all Quincy’s stuff, Dion [Neutra] has the copyright to all of Richard Neutra’s stuff. Dion will charge for permission to copy any part of that, where Quincy’s children will only charge for full plans,” Elliott said.

The new Neutra developers have partnered with Dion Neutra to offer the plans, and Chazanas told me Neutra would be the architect of record when and if they actually build. But he couldn’t tell me exactly how much they would charge for a set of the plans, nor to have them updated to today’s building codes. An email to another partner, Billy Rose, went unanswered.

The UCLA archive itself only charges enough to cover its costs for plans sought by Eichler homeowners for repair or remodel. “Typically for your average size drawing it’s about $27 per drawing, then it’s an $85 transportation fee to get the material for the scanning lab, and $31 for a processing fee,” Elliot said, stressing that the exact cost would depend on the size of the drawing.

The real cost, should you want to build from scratch, is in getting permission to use the copyrighted material.

At Houseplans.com, you’ll pay $4,500 for a full set of Eichler plans, of which eight different models are available. Then you have to update them to come into compliance with modern codes. For most states, that will run an additional $1,700, Houseplans.com architect Nick Lee told me. In California, with its strict building codes, it’s going to be more, and how much depends on the specific site.

Houseplans.com offers its Eichler designs through a partnership with the Environmental Design Archives at U.C. Berkeley, which holds the copyright to Oakland’s work. There, curator Waverly Lowell said, Eichler homeowners can get partial copies of the plans without paying a license fee. As with UCLA, they charge only for the cost of reproducing them, around $40 a sheet.

“A huge percentage of Eichler plans requested are because the radiant heat has failed,” Lowell said, so homeowners request those to do repairs. “We’re supportive of the homeowner. The gray zone is to build new, so we’ve tried to make a place where that’s possible for people.”

It’s great to know that many of the Neutra, Eichler, and other historically significant plans remain available. And it will be interesting to see what kind of projects these new partnerships between rights-holders and vendors yield. But for homeowners who want partial plans for remodel, repair, or simply as an objet d’art, a little legwork may get you what you need for the cost of a few large-scale copies.