The Great Escapes: Don't Fear—Experiment

The Inside Story of an Awesome Prefab Modernist Beach House

It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.

By Zach Dundas August 14, 2017 Published in the September 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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The Oceanside prefab

"Here’s what I tell people,” says Ted Helprin, founder of a Portland creative firm. “Imagine you go on a very fancy weekend getaway in the Northwest every month. Now let’s say that one month you don’t go, for whatever reason. Take the money you would spend, and set it on fire. You’re spending it whether you go or not.”

It’s definitely been interesting. Ted and his wife, Nicole, a VP for an industrial engineering firm, began scheming a coastal retreat about a decade ago—and not just any boring condo. Nicole had seen pictures of a WeeHouse, a product from Minnesota company Alchemy that offered crisp modernist design in a prefabricated, modular package. “It stuck in my head—land and prefab, land and prefab,” she recalls. They flew to San Francisco to tour a model.

The land turned up in Oceanside, a pretty chunk of Tillamook County. It was 2007, era of mortgage mania; financing would not be a problem. As Ted puts it (mordantly), “real estate could only go up!” Alchemy connected them with a prefab-savvy lender. They learned about construction loans.

The couple discovered that Oceanside, like many places where vacationers coexist with locals, harbored general ill feelings about development, and suspicion about their project in particular. “No builder wanted to touch the project,” Nicole says. “They thought it would be a double-wide.” They eventually found pros who would take their money. Construction took longer than predicted, as perhaps could have been predicted.

The house, however, did happen: a sleek-but-sturdy rectangle hardened against Oregon Coast weather, with “the gnarliest available ... glass doors” and marine-grade stainless steel hardware without, some custom-made furniture and two bathrooms within. It looks great—and the beach (the beach!) is a 10-minute walk away.

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A peek inside the prefab

“The first year, we were there every weekend,” Nicole says. “The second year, every other weekend. Now we’re at a steady once a month.” They discovered that a beach house does not forestall life. Ted found himself minus job for a Recessionary spell; real estate, especially on the Oregon Coast, does not always go up. (“Don’t assume you’ll make money on the deal,” Ted advises.) Outfitting a second home turns out to be just like outfitting any home.

“We’d go out, and I’d bring a shovel and a weedwhacker,” Ted says. “At some point, what are you doing? I bought a new shovel and weedwhacker.”

“You think you’re going to get everything at Goodwill,” Nicole adds. “You won’t. You need Internet and a phone. You need maple syrup.”

The detail not to lose is that they love the place. They take their two kids, ages 9 and 11, frequently; they rent it out about 120 nights a year. The house attracts prefab enthusiasts and Alchemy-curious would-be owners. A loquacious website serves up many details for this audience, and implicitly testifies to the Helprins’ wacky affection for their project. They don’t necessarily recommend the whole experience. But it turns out to suit them.

“I know there are a lot of cool places you can go,” Nicole says. “But I like going to a place that’s designed exactly how I want, with all the things I like.”

Sometimes, to live the dream, you have to live it.

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