written by:
photos by:
January 19, 2009
Originally published in Green Is Good

A husband-and-wife architect team proves a house can be good for the environment—and look great too.

In Scarpa and Brook' own house, they’ve mounted luminous solar panels in a rusted-steel-beam grid to form a modernist canopy that frames the façade. This imaginative “solar umbrella” hides the household power plant in plain sight, part of an artful compos
In Scarpa and Brook' own house, they’ve mounted luminous solar panels in a rusted-steel-beam grid to form a modernist canopy that frames the façade. This imaginative “solar umbrella” hides the household power plant in plain sight, part of an artful composition that includes a hanging screen tied with bristles of industrial brooms.
Photo by 
1 / 8
The living room flows effortlessly out to the courtyard. This unity is underscored by the living room’s blue shag rug from the Shag Rug Company.
The living room flows effortlessly out to the courtyard. This unity is underscored by the living room’s blue shag rug from the Shag Rug Company.
Photo by 
2 / 8
solar powered house in santa monica
Angela Brooks and son Calder revel in the benefits of free solar energy, cheerfully opening the living room’s big glass doors when it’s time to play.
Photo by 
3 / 8
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
Photo by 
Courtesy of 
Darcy Hemley
4 / 8
The fluted cherry front door, designed by Scarpa, launches a rippling motif that reappears in furniture and on walls. The Harry Bertoia Bird chair is from Knoll.
The fluted cherry front door, designed by Scarpa, launches a rippling motif that reappears in furniture and on walls. The Harry Bertoia Bird chair is from Knoll.
Photo by 
5 / 8
In the dining/kitchen area there are cabinets and floors made of oriented strand board (OSB) and a cherry dining table fabricated by Joe Cooper to the architects’ design.
In the dining/kitchen area there are cabinets and floors made of oriented strand board (OSB) and a cherry dining table fabricated by Joe Cooper to the architects’ design.
Photo by 
6 / 8
A steel-beam canopy with solar panels shades the house and provides electricity.
A steel-beam canopy with solar panels shades the house and provides electricity.
Photo by 
7 / 8
Brooks and Scarpa took an unlovable old bungalow that occupied a deep through lot, with streets front and rear, and transformed it into their dream home. The ingenious new solar-framed façade is seen here.
Brooks and Scarpa took an unlovable old bungalow that occupied a deep through lot, with streets front and rear, and transformed it into their dream home. The ingenious new solar-framed façade is seen here.
Photo by 
8 / 8
In Scarpa and Brook' own house, they’ve mounted luminous solar panels in a rusted-steel-beam grid to form a modernist canopy that frames the façade. This imaginative “solar umbrella” hides the household power plant in plain sight, part of an artful compos
In Scarpa and Brook' own house, they’ve mounted luminous solar panels in a rusted-steel-beam grid to form a modernist canopy that frames the façade. This imaginative “solar umbrella” hides the household power plant in plain sight, part of an artful composition that includes a hanging screen tied with bristles of industrial brooms.
Project 
Solar Umbrella

Lawrence Scarpa has an intriguing insight as to why solar-powered houses have yet to take the country by storm. Aside from the economic and political hurdles, he says, “the truth is that solar energy will never catch on unless people like it.” He sees strong solar architecture as the ultimate solution. It’s a challenge he and his wife, Angela Brooks, have been more than willing to take on.

Scarpa and Brooks are architects and co-principals in a Santa Monica design firm where exploring new technologies is a daily practice. When it came time to build a home for themselves, they were eager to see how far they could go in applying their green-design know-how in their everyday lives. It took seven years, but they succeeded in creating a solar-powered house that meets their high design standards while costing almost nothing to run. By combining avant-garde aesthetics with sound environmental practices, they’ve blown away the lingering frumpy image that helps keep solar houses out of the mainstream.

The living room flows effortlessly out to the courtyard. This unity is underscored by the living room’s blue shag rug from the Shag Rug Company.
The living room flows effortlessly out to the courtyard. This unity is underscored by the living room’s blue shag rug from the Shag Rug Company.

The couple’s forward-thinking home started with a tiny vintage Spanish-style bungalow in Venice, California, which they bought and remodeled in 1997. “We stripped off all the hacienda charm in that first renovation,” says Scarpa. Although the house was small, the property—a deep through lot with streets front and rear—was ideal for future expansion. The Venice location was promising, too. The bohemian beachside community is a well-known architectural incubator: Trendsetting modern houses from the likes of Frank Gehry, Lorcan O’Herlihy, and David Hertz regularly pop up on streets lined with tall palms and colorful bungalows. Scarpa and Brooks could have contributed an adventurous design with conventional systems to that mix and still held their heads up. But their professional and personal lives propelled them in the direction of the house they call Solar Umbrella.
solar powered house in santa monica
Angela Brooks and son Calder revel in the benefits of free solar energy, cheerfully opening the living room’s big glass doors when it’s time to play.

In the 1990s, Scarpa and Brooks, through their firm Pugh + Scarpa Architecture, gained a reputation for imaginative, playful design schemes outfitted with unconventional materials. For creative-minded clients, including a number of Los Angeles film editing and production studios, they came up with one innovative idea after another. They brought in industrial shipping containers to house Reactor Films, covered walls in Dixie cups at Creative Domain, and mounted translucent Ping-Pong balls on the walls at Jigsaw. In the  their own exceptional workplace, they even hired an employee whose job is just to have fun experimenting with new products and materials.

At the same time, they were becoming serious sustainability pioneers. Their first solar-powered effort—Colorado Court, a low-income apartment house in Santa Monica—cemented their environmental commitment. When the project was named a finalist in the 2003 World Habitat Awards, Pugh + Scarpa became solar celebrities virtually overnight.

The firm’s breakthrough idea at Colorado Court is stunningly simple: Solar panels are treated as art objects—exciting new elements to be integrated into the overall architectural design. “I was inspired by the sheer beauty of solar panels,” Scarpa recalls. “They rekindled an interest I’d had 20 years ago in school.”

In the dining/kitchen area there are cabinets and floors made of oriented strand board (OSB) and a cherry dining table fabricated by Joe Cooper to the architects’ design.
In the dining/kitchen area there are cabinets and floors made of oriented strand board (OSB) and a cherry dining table fabricated by Joe Cooper to the architects’ design.

The architects chose polycrystalline solar panels, which are vivid blue. Then, circumventing the traditional practice of tilting solar panels so that the sun hits them at a 90 degree angle for maximum efficiency, they mounted them vertically on the outer walls. Set against the sage-green stucco building, the blue panels gleam in the sun like crushed sapphires.

With their first solar success as a springboard, Brooks and Scarpa became increasingly vocal champions of sustainable design. They cofounded the nonprofit Livable Places to fund environmentally friendly projects and to help build public support for sustainability. They also began advising the U.S. Green Building Council on developing LEED rating standards for this emerging field.

Despite their busy professional lives, the couple still had energy for the bungalow breakout. “We’d drawn up plans for a single-story expansion, then our son Calder came,” Brooks says. “He changed everything!” To provide private spaces for themselves and their son, they designed a two-story addition to the bungalow. They also decided to flip the house, transforming the old backyard into a front entry courtyard. When you visit at nightfall, walking into the courtyard feels like entering a full-fledged work of contemporary art: a cross between a rusty steel Richard Serra sculpture and Dan Flavin’s ethereal light installations. Opening the gate—a rusted steel plate—leads you to a gravel-bordered grass courtyard with a raised concrete pool, lit from within, as luminous as an aquatint. The water spills over into an adjacent trough where silver balls bobble. A 30-foot-long line of fire blazes along the front courtyard wall, suggesting a magical desert encampment.

A steel-beam canopy with solar panels shades the house and provides electricity.
A steel-beam canopy with solar panels shades the house and provides electricity.

Then there is the arresting presence of the house itself, where ingenious 3-D special effects are layered onto a simple glass-walled box. On the left of the large sliding glass doors, there’s a concrete panel imprinted with ghostly images of eucalyptus leaves gathered from the property. Beside it hangs a ladderlike screen that’s covered with, of all things, the bristles of industrial brooms. Overhead, the house is framed by a bold horizontal canopy of rusted steel beams inset with milky-white glass-encased solar panels that glow softly in the evening light. A similar structure is mounted vertically against the left side of the house. If you didn’t know those steel frames encased solar panels, you could be forgiven for thinking they were merely an aesthetic choice.

Crossing the threshold from the outdoor path that runs through a koi pond almost feels like walking on water. The front door, a great slab of cherry wood sculpted with ripples, opens into a double-height living room. With its glass front wall slipped into side pockets, the living area and courtyard merge into a single continuous space. Clerestory windows also contribute to the open-air feeling. “We wanted to live that wonderful indoor-outdoor California life, but with more light and space,” explains Brooks.

Upstairs, in the master bedroom suite, the indoors-out atmosphere is enhanced by a 200-square-foot rooftop terrace. The bedroom also serves as Scarpa’s painting studio. Calder, now six, got his own bedroom suite. “But he likes to come up here and paint on my paintings,” Scarpa says. “This whole house is like a playhouse for him.” Downstairs, the open kitchen/ dining area (renovated in 1997) is in the rear, in the former bungalow.
 
Solar Umbrella was inspired by Paul Rudolph’s 1953 Umbrella House in Lido Shores, Florida, an icon of Sarasota School modernism that offered startling new climate-control interventions. To mitigate the scorching sun, a wooden trellis, reputedly fashioned of tomato stakes, covered the roof, the swimming pool and the terrace. (It has since been removed.) “He was my hero,” says Scarpa, a Florida native, who as a young man worked in Rudolph’s New York City architecture office.

Brooks and Scarpa took Rudolph’s trellis idea one step further, installing solar panels into a steel-beam canopy that shades the house and provides electricity. The canopy is part of a 4.5-kilowatt solar system that powers almost the entire 1,900-square-foot house, and the pool. There are 89 BP Solar amorphous photovoltaic solar panels mounted in the steel-beamed structures, on the roof, and atop the carport. “It’s not rocket science,” says Brooks. “Our system is simple. We used normal electricity. We did the wiring diagrams. It could all be done by a nonprofessional.”

The solar system has a net-metered connection to the utility company’s power grid. The couple effectively sells electricity to the company during daylight and buys it back at night. Of the $340,000 spent on the addition, $34,000 went for the solar components, reduced to $11,510 after rebates and tax credits. Brooks and Scarpa expect to break even financially in seven years—sooner if energy prices keep rising.

“Even without rebates,” Scarpa says, “we spent $34,000—about the cost of a new SUV—for a lifetime of free energy.” They also got a very cool new place to live.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

in the mix antwerp belgium warehouse renovation live work space lounge area cushions dining table kitchenette borge mogensen cabinets
An artist and an architect build their home, studios, and an exhibition space inside an Antwerp warehouse.
February 13, 2016
senses sight products kinetic wire sculpture alexander calder mobile
A phenomenon of light and visual perception, colors signal a language of their own.
February 13, 2016
beach weathered seaside retreat sagaponack new york pine walls aluminum furniture
Balancing texture, proportion, and found objects lends unexpected sophistication to a seaside retreat.
February 13, 2016
Concrete floor, white walls, Bend sectional sofa, Metropolitan chair by B&B Italia, and Arper pouf in living room of Rhode Island family vacation home by Bernheimer Architecture.
Create comfortable areas to lounge, sit, eat, and entertain with these designs.
February 12, 2016
São Paulo apartment dining room with local wood floors and HAY chairs
From concrete to wood, these South American homes enjoy nature inside and out.
February 12, 2016
Custom cabinetry and trim in Chicago apartment renovation.
The Second City is second to none when it comes to inventive modern architecture, from Louis Sullivan to the present day.
February 12, 2016
Kitchen of 1956 midcentury modern Palm Springs home.
Celebrate Palm Springs Modernism Week, which runs from February 11–21, with a look at some of our favorite modern desert oases.
February 12, 2016
Gustav bicycle by Coh&Co
Designmuseum Danmark unveils a permanent collection highlighting new developments in Danish design.
February 12, 2016
A Seattle studio's courtyard
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 12, 2016
Chalet in the French alps
An innovative glass addition adds contrast to a timber mountain lodge in France.
February 11, 2016
Aumas' assorted collectables.
Bright colors and vintage furniture are abound in these French homes.
February 11, 2016
Kogan designed a number of the built-in furnishings, including the headboard and cupboard in the master bedroom.The cupboard is deliberately reminiscent of a mid-century stereo speaker. The vintage lounge chairs are by Percival Lafer.
Need to relax? Make your bedroom an oasis from the rest of the house.
February 11, 2016
Modern Florida seaside home with corian island, dornbracht faucet, cees braakman combex chairs and marble knoll table in the kitchen
Read more about Knoll's impressive career here, but in the meantime, explore just a few of her works in these contemporary homes.
February 11, 2016
Modern small box home in Mexico
Letting the warm climate indoors is a common thread through these diverse dwellings.
February 11, 2016
Modern white cabinets under the stairs with skylight above
What could be better than a modest-sized house in a quaintly historic city?
February 11, 2016
dining room lighting
These renovations connect rustic, classic, and modern design in Italy.
February 10, 2016
12362509 211441865858796 1743381178 n1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 10, 2016
modern outdoor garden room plastic polycarbonate
From colorful living rooms to a backyard retreat, Belgian designers reimagine vernacular forms and materials for the modern world.
February 10, 2016
Tel Aviv kitchen with custom dining table and Smeg fridge
Would you go for an out-of-the-box palette for your major appliances? See how these kitchens tackle the trend.
February 10, 2016
Exhibition view, of Klaus Wittkugel works at P! gallery, New York
On view through February 21 at New York's P! gallery, a new show explores the politics of Cold War-era graphic design with a presentation of works by Klaus Wittkugel—East Germany's most prolific graphic designer. Curator Prem Krishnamurthy walks us through the highlights.
February 10, 2016
Reclaimed cedar and gray-stucco home outside San Francisco.
The new kid on the block in a predominantly Eichler neighborhood, this Menlo Park home breaks the mold and divides into three pavilions connected by breezeways.
February 10, 2016
A third floor addition and whole-house renovation modernized a funky cottage on an unusual, triple-wide lot in San Francisco.
From modern interiors hidden within historic structures to unabashedly modern dwellings, these seven renovations take totally different approaches to San Francisco's historic building stock.
February 10, 2016
Delphi sofa from Erik Jørgensen and gyrofocus fireplace in living room of Villa Le Trident in the French Riviera, renovated by 4a Architekten.
The Aegean's all-white architecture famously helped inspire Le Corbusier; these five dwellings continue in that proud modern tradition (though not all are as minimalist).
February 10, 2016
San Francisco dining room with chandelier and Eames shell chairs
Brooklyn-based RBW's work—from diminutive sconces to large floor lamps—shape these five interiors.
February 09, 2016
Glass-fronted converted garage in Washington
These garages go behind parking cars and storing your drum sets.
February 09, 2016
Modern Texas home office with sliding walls, behr black chalkboard paint, concrete walls, and white oak flooring
From appropriated nooks to glass-encased rooms, each of these modern offices works a unique angle.
February 09, 2016
picnic-style table in renovated San Francisco house
From chandeliers to pendants, these designs make the dining room the most entertaining space in the house.
February 09, 2016
Midcentury house in Portland with iron colored facade and gold front door
From preserved masterworks to carefully updated time capsules, these homes have one thing in common (other than a healthy appreciation for everything Eames): the conviction that the '40s, '50s, and '60s were the most outstanding moments in American architecture.
February 09, 2016
Modern living room with furniture designed by Ludovica + Roberto Palomba
These oases by the sea, many done up in white, make stunning escapes.
February 08, 2016
A Philippe Starck standing lamp and an Eames chaise longue bracket the living room; two Lawrence Weiner prints hang behind a pair of Warren Platner chairs and a table purchased from a River Oaks estate sale; at far left of the room, a partial wall of new
Texas might have a big reputation, but these homes show the variety of shapes and sizes in the Lone Star State.
February 08, 2016