Sebastian presented us with several general goals based on his inspection of the site. Firstly, he wanted to retain the two existing mature trees. This has profound design implications because the major pine tree is in a valuable, buildable area of the lot, therefore we will need to design the house around that tree. Secondly, Sebastian wants to place the garage at the back of the property off of the rear alley. This means the street front will not have the common suburban face of a driveway and garage doors. This makes the front streetscape more pleasant but it also means we will be arriving at the “back” of the house when we arrive by car and so our path of travel needs to be examined, so we don’t feel like we are using a service entrance every time we come home.
We discussed with Sebastian our desire to enjoy the Californian sunshine, particularly in winter and so we agreed to undertake sun and shadow studies to see if we could optimize massing both for passive solar benefit and maximization of sunny outdoor rooms.
After six weeks of telephone conversations and email correspondence discussing our design requirements, Sebastian returned to present his design in the form of a wooden model and also plans, elevations, sections and renderings.
Sebastian presented a design of fragmented massing, with multiple outdoor spaces and separate front and back parts of the house facing onto a central courtyard. Every room enjoys a courtyard or outdoor aspect. We liked the rooftop gardens as additional outdoor space. There were several elements of the design that we discussed modifying, such as enclosing a rooftop space to create a media room, and re-organizing the front arrival area to maximize the size of the den/office. In general we loved the broken up nature of the design and the privacy that a central courtyard offers.
After reviewing the design and discussing potential modifications we scheduled a visit with the City of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety to discuss the design in general terms and ensure that we were complying with code.
Building code is a set of rules that specify minimum acceptable safety standards for construction. That sounds simple enough but code manifests itself in thousands of pages of rules that have been updated and amended over time as technology has changed and also in an attempt to plug loopholes or resolve ambiguities. It is a complex task to ensure a design meets all code requirements as there are so many qualifiers, special conditions, exceptions etc depending on the zoning of your land and sometimes also additional rules specific to your local area.
We arranged to see a special Case Manager at the Department of Building and Safety. A Case Manager is an expert in understanding and interpreting code and can often give accurate information and suggestions for design adjustment in a quicker and more reliable fashion than some of the “front desk” personnel. If someone on the front desk is finding a particular design challenging to reconcile with code then the discussion will often be escalated upstairs to a Case Manager who can make a definitive ruling on what the City will or will not accept. We decided to spend the money to see a Case Manger directly to discuss our design.
What we learned was that the City would not accept a house design that had two completely separate front and back structures. Despite the architectural merits of a courtyard, the City would not allow the structures facing the courtyard to be disconnected from each other. The reason is that our land is zoned R1 which means that only one residential dwelling can be constructed. Two separate structures would be considered by the City to be two separate dwellings. The problem, we were told, is that in the expensive Southern California real estate market it is common for owners to illegally convert garages and other structures into separate dwellings. Our house design looked like it could be converted into two homes with each one looking onto the courtyard.
We argued that the front structure contained the kitchen and the back structure the master bedroom. We were not creating two homes but rather a single home that was divided into two structures. Moreover, our raised swimming pool deck was physically connecting the two sections of the house.
We offered to sign an affidavit that we would only ever have one family in the house and that we would not convert the design into two dwellings. This was not acceptable to the City. If we wanted a permit that would enable us to build the home then we needed to make all parts of the home “connected” into one structure. The Code provides definitions of what a “connection” is. Our swimming pool deck was an insufficient connection. After discussion about code language interpretation we understood that, in the simplest of terms, we had a choice of connecting the front and back parts of the house either with a 4ft wide hallway, completely enclosed from the weather, or a covered walkway with a solid roof that was 10ft wide and is open on the sides to the weather. Armed with these definitions of an acceptable connection, we decided to revisit the design of the house. The goal was to incorporate some specific feedback I had for Sebastian based on his original design and also to include the City’s requirement that all parts of the house be connected.
So Sebastian returned to the drawing board to adapt the existing design into version two of our house.
Michael Sylvester is a writer who lives in both Los Angeles and an aisle seat, preferably in the exit row. On his pilgrimage to Dan Rockhill's Studio 804 in Lawrence, Kansas, to see its fabled prefab projects, he was feeling a bit self conscious being a Left Coast vegetarian in steak country. "In addition to their cool prefabs, there was a great vegan restaurant downtown. Who doesn't enjoy mixing good architecture with good food?" he says.