Drumming Up Design
Brotherly love takes many forms; in the case of Rob and Eric Brill, it’s a shared passion for modernism. Rob, the younger of the two and a rock musician, recently completed the second of two live/work homes in Los Angeles that serve as spaces for recording and rehearsing and as expressions of his taste for a bracingly spartan brand of minimalism. He built both homes with co-investment from his brother Eric, a retired businessman and serious collector of industrial design, who until recently lived in a 1934 Edward Durrell Stone house in New York State. "We are modernists," says Rob, with the clarity of someone declaring a religious belief. "We love its simplicity, the embrace of its surroundings." Along the way, though, the Brill brothers have been struck by another near-spiritual commitment: environmentalism.
Their first house, a remodel in a rough-edged corner of L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood, was initially created for Eric and his family; Rob and his then-girlfriend ended up moving in. Designed by the architect Wes Jones, it featured a movable steel platform, polished-concrete floors, and a none-too-cozy prison-issue toilet.
The new house is farther east, in the emerging neighborhood of Eagle Rock. It too is a remodel—the one-story stucco box from 1968 last served as the plant for Saturn Lighting, a fabricator of mid-century-modern light fixtures—and is situated in a less-than-ideal spot: smack up against the freeway. Designed by L.A. architect Tony Unruh, it has a tough, industrial aesthetic similar to that of the Silver Lake house, and features restaurant-supply steel sinks and counters in the bathrooms and kitchen, and unadorned white walls. It’s clad in a continuous screen of dark gray corrugated-steel paneling with deep horizontal recesses. The horizontal orientation of the siding makes the house appear longer and further compounds its unyielding quality.
In the last few years, though, Rob Brill has developed a strong environmental awareness that he determined to incorporate into the design of this new house, a concern not wholly out of line with his life as a musician. Realizing that perpetual fighting with the neighbors is not exactly sustainable living, Brill—a drummer and guitarist who has toured with Pete Droge and the Sinners—wanted to control the noise coming in from the freeway, and the noise going out from his music. "Prerequisite number one was a place to play music day and night," Brill declares. To achieve it Unruh insulated the walls with a double layer of Sheetrock and recycled-denim insulation. To provide further soundproofing around the band-practice area, as well as visual separation when desired, he suspended heavy-duty industrial baffles that cordon off the rehearsal space.
"Prerequisite number two was to transform the building into a highly energy-efficient, low-energy-profile kind of place," says Brill, a wiry and youthful 51-year-old who greeted me on my arrival with a large glass of green liquid that turned out to be his daily brew: a farmer’s-market welter of nearly a dozen organic fruits and veggies blended into a mix that was surprisingly delicious.
"I wanted a place that was really minimalist and required an active participation on my part not only to become green, but to sustain that green sensibility." He also attributes his eco-awakening to lessons learned from living several years in Japan. "I have a taste for minimalism, not wanting to make too big of a footprint on where I am. As I’ve become aware of the environmental situation, I find myself paring down on items that are unnecessary or detrimental."
To that end he gutted the once-subdivided 1,880-square-foot building (on a site of 4,800 square feet) and turned the bulk of it into a large open living/dining room and band-practice area with two bedrooms and a kitchen on the side and rear. The solar panels mounted over the parking area out front power the water heater, lighting, and air-conditioning. Bill also installed "the highest SEER-level Puron HVAC system." Those were the big-budget items. "We made a conscious decision from the very first day to make it as green as possible and keep it within our budget," says Brill. "I knew that the solar, insulation, and heating and cooling would be the biggest expenditures, so I figured we’d bite the bullet on those three." The rest of the house is sparsely and cheaply appointed, with primarily IKEA furnishings and a pegboard floor.
One of the biggest challenges in renovating a deep-plan industrial building is the distribution of natural light. Unruh punched in skylights over the cavernous space, and highly efficient T5 fluorescent tubes provide the necessary artificial light. Unsatisfied with the look of the energy-saving lumens, Brill covered them with gels to soften the cold quality of the fluorescent light. "I was recording an album," he reports, "and as it got darker, I turned on the lights and everyone shrunk. It wasn’t a mood enhancer, so I went to a theater supply [shop] and gelled all the lights."
The off-the-shelf materials suited Brill’s taste and his pocketbook. He and Eric had set a budget of $200,000 maximum for construction, but "we came in under budget because we used industrial materials. And because I was working on it every day all day long." Brill did the bulk of the building work. Starting in September of 2006, he spent four and half months working as general contractor and laborer with a core crew. His diligence kept costs under $100 per square foot.
Having lived there for a short time, Brill is still settling into his new home. Though the bare walls will soon fill up with art, for now the house has a decidedly minimal feel. In his view, it’s the natural fulfillment of the kind of modernism he has long pursued. "For me modern architecture is not about razzle-dazzle. It’s about being simple and clean." For Brill, the razzle-dazzle is best left to the music.