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Two Houses Are Better Than One

Or is one house better than two? For Santa Monica–based architect Jesse Bornstein and his family, both are true.

Making use of the hilltop location, each window was planned to frame interesting vistas or to find the best sight lines around adjoining buildings.

To appreciate architect Jesse Bornstein’s home renovation-construction project is to understand his hometown: Santa Monica, California, a seaside municipality abutting the vastness of Los Angeles. “The People’s Republic of Santa Monica” is a bastion of dyed-in-the-wool liberalism—and, ironically, an exemplar of astronomical real estate prices. The only real proletariat in town are just visiting, or cleaning up.

In Santa Monica, zoning is a war: Historical preservationists fight to protect tiny surfing bungalows, which can sell in the high $800,000s. If a developer wins an ap-peal, the teardown will indubitably be exploited to its most profitable extent. Out in the Ocean Park neighborhood, where Bornstein lives, modest “traditional” houses are now million-dollar homes by the sea, sitting cheek by jowl with lot-filling crackerbox apartments and condos.

This all makes Bornstein’s decision to turn his single-family house into a two-family condo a radical example of community building. Not that Bornstein sacrificed much to a touchy-feely ideal: His decision to neither hunker down and suffer nor raze and sell is proof that building smart can still be profitable. Bornstein bought  the postwar 1,400-square-foot house on a 50-by-160-foot lot in 1999. Behind the structure was an imposing elm, a dilapidated carport, and a ten-foot-high retaining wall that ran the width of the property and led up to a useless—and, for Bornstein’s two young daughters (Kalia, six, and Olivia, four), dangerous—sloping backyard.

His first step in the master plan was to renovate and expand the house into something his family could live in comfortably. “We gutted it and stripped everything,” says Bornstein. He also added 700 square feet, transforming the one-story, three-bedroom, one-bath structure into a two-story house with a master suite and bath on the upper floor. “Bringing in light and opening up the walls,” he says, were his main goals—ushering the 1951 house into the latter half of the 20th century, with its central heating and air-conditioning.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Los Angeles–area houses were often built from materials scavenged from older houses demolished during the war years—and, in most cases, they were built quickly and cheaply to house a new generation of suburbanites. The interior of Bornstein house #1 still has some of the original thin, three-panel doors now fitted with brushed-chrome globe levers. While the kitchen ceiling was raised and nearby skylights brightened the room, the narrow, bowling-alley galley remains. Upstairs, the multi-windowed master suite is plopped, wedding cake–style, on top of the house, mimicking its original gabled look.

Sunlight is plentiful at every level of the house.

Outside, Bornstein eventually re-created the original wood-siding-and-stucco combination that was the easy-care standard of the day. The original carport was torn down as part of the commencement of phase two of his plan—which was to build an entirely new house directly behind the first, connected via the front house’s new (but old-looking) garage. Upon completion, the front house was sold to a doctor who at first expressed trepidation about living in such close proximity to small children. “But now he loves the kids,” says Bornstein. 

The Bornsteins’ new house is essentially a split-level, but extending out from the front is Jesse’s home office/studio, which slices horizontally through the gable-roofed garage. This intrusion is made peaceful by the felicity of the two buildings’ cladding materials:
The new house is sheathed in second-growth redwood strips and a gray plaster finish that mimics the color of concrete. The contrast of the thin, vertical siding and the smooth, troweled plaster speaks directly to the funky green planks and nubby stucco of the original house. Semiotically they’re the same—yet completely different.

Such carefully considered details abound at the Bornsteins’; this is, after all, a house built by an architect for himself and his family. It also reflects the Harvard-trained architect’s attitude toward the design/build pro-cess. Like a chef or novelist, Bornstein sets out the core rules of a project, and later breaks them when the site or situation demands it. The result is a harmonious, pragmatic structure that works with its site, rather than fighting with or floating loftily above it.

The 2,891-square-foot back house was completed in August 2002, at a cost of $220 per square foot. Its floors step up the hillside, leaving a flat, grassy, 700-square-foot backyard above the old retaining wall—now a perfect place for his kids to play. Concrete pieces from the demolition of the carport form what Bornstein calls “a poor man’s stone wall” at the rear of the yard, and fast-growing bamboo will eventually screen out the back side of an unattractive apartment building and its parking lot behind the house.

The different levels have shifting orientations and views, as if they were each clicked a half turn on a Rubik’s Cube away from each other. The site is shaped like a parallelogram; some walls orient to the front and rear lines of the property, some to its sides. There are
balconies off nearly every room, and interesting vistas from every window. Some frame the hills above Sunset Boulevard to the north and the San Bernadino Mountains to the east, while others pick out the best sight lines through, around, and over the adjoining buildings to trees, a public park, or just a patch of sky.

The interior is built around the mature Chinese elm that once dominated the backyard of the front house, and now plays a starring role in an open courtyard near the entry. While the outward-looking windows frame views of Los Angeles, the interior glass shows off different levels of the tree. “The elm really is the core of the   house,” says Bornstein. “You see it everywhere you go.”

The sisters in their colorful bathroom with Kohler fixtures.

A theatrical-grade lighting system allows for the illumination of different zones at the touch of a button, and is powered by 16 small solar panels on the roof. (“Our meter runs backwards,” notes Bornstein.)

On the main level, two floor-to-ceiling sliding-glass doors open the living/dining area to the yard behind the house, expanding the room outdoors. (The massive glass panes are repeated inside, in the form of oversized, solid-fir pocket doors.) Though the exterior area isn’t much in terms of square footage, it’s all usable. Stairs run from the backyard down to the elm and a new koi pond and back around to the kitchen and living area, so the kids can run, hide, and play outside, all within shouting distance of adults indoors.

On the day I visited, Bornstein’s daughter Kalia was preparing for soccer practice, scurrying between levels, inside and out, to find a purple parasol to match her outfit. The girls have a level to themselves just a half floor below the parents’ master suite and a half floor above the main level, plus a playroom (which doubles as a family room and guest room) with a large balcony on the studio floor, just a half floor below the main level. “They love the house,” says Bornstein. “How many kids can say they have their own suite?”

The only part of the new house Bornstein is unhappy with is the galvanized-aluminum that clads his home’s garage door. Unlike the stainless steel the material re-sembles, “it takes fingerprints like crazy”—specifically, kid-sized ones.

The architect was, of course, free to tear down the front house and build a single box with four condos inside—or he could have built two detached structures separated by a narrow breezeway—or he could have just renovated the front house and then landscaped the property. Setting the studio of the back house over the garage of the front house was a much-considered design decision, but in the end, the real reason for the intriguing integration of the front and back houses was prosaic: They had to be attached for the project to be financially viable. “It was an economic necessity that we subdivide,” says Bornstein. The two houses are considered by the City of Santa Monica to be a two-unit condominium, rather than two separate structures—which would have been illegal anyway, due to setback requirements.

The result is two single-family houses living happily as one—and a homegrown solution where there could have been a prime example of urban infill gone bad.

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