How Good Idea Studio Revamped a 1924 Clapboard House on a $62,000 Budget
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How Good Idea Studio Revamped a 1924 Clapboard House on a $62,000 Budget

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By Emily Young
After architectural designers Louis Molina and Laurent Turin of Good Idea Studio revamped a tiny, dilapidated 1923 clapboard house in 2004, they moved their Los Angeles office into the ground level and have taken turns occupying the 578-square-foot living quarters upstairs. While Turin is supervising the firm’s office in his native Switzerland, Molina, who also teaches at the Woodbury University School of Architecture in Burbank, gives us the tour of their diminutive-by-design Echo Park remodel.

My grandparents’ first house was in Echo Park. My aunt and uncle lived here, too. After World War II, my family moved out to the San Fernando Valley where there was more interest in the newer, the cleaner, the fancier. But my generation has rediscovered the appeal of living in a place with easy access to transportation, coffee shops, and galleries, a place that has parks, history, and complex layers.
There used to be three houses on this lot. The city issued a permit to knock down the two in front in 1978.The place was like a rundown public park because it was open to the street on three sides. The house was in such a bad state of decay that the property was sold as land value only. But we thought the foundation, redwood structure, and roofing were in pretty good shape. It was just the siding, interior finishes, plumbing, and the electrical that needed help.

The downstairs office houses the tools of the trade.

Given our original budget of $50,000, which eventually bumped up to $62,000, it didn’t make sense to tear down and start over. That would have cost more financially and environmentally, and it would have come at the expense of the historic nature of the neighborhood. To me, the most sustainable house is the house that’s already here. So we saved the structure, wrapped it in cement fiberboard paneling, and donated whatever materials we could to a salvage yard.

A sliding glass door and breezy cross ventilation make Louis Molina’s modest living room appear more generous than its actual dimensions.

The interior is 15 feet by 37 feet, which means we have 578 square feet above in the residence and the same below for the office. We thought this could be like a little working box with a living unit on top. Our goal was to imagine ways to live in a small space that weren’t about living small. Instead of dividing it into several rooms like before or building bigger, we use the garden for meals and other gatherings.

Surrounded by flax, agaves, and a prolific lemon tree, the gravel terrace out front makes an inviting place to eat, work, or party. Molina and Turin fashioned the table from repurposed glass and Unistrut tube steel and the humble chairs from plywood wrapped in sheets of blue foam.

The house is one room with the bathroom in the middle. By creating complexity and visual interruptions, we changed the way you experience the space so you perceive it as a larger volume. You get different perspectives, different views. When you’re in the living room, you see shelving with books along a long wall, but you don’t know that’s the bedroom at the other end. With light coming in from the skylights and sliding glass doors, the impression is not of a darkening, shrinking space but of a more generous room.

Good Idea Studio redesigned the front facade with a welded tube steel staircase, an aluminum-and-polycarbonate awning, and fiber cement-board paneling painted "Pool Party" blue.

We wanted the house to function in all the necessary ways, but we didn’t want to be reminded of those functions all the time. Laurent and I could have filled the kitchen wall with cabinets, but then it would have always looked like a kitchen. Instead, we created a table as a more neutral space—–for eating, chatting, or just hanging out—–and put the sink, oven, and storage on the back side of the table.

The architectural office below the living quarters is compact, with just enough space for shared workstations and a bookcase made of plywood and pink Plexiglas.

The wall remains open so we can hang a picture, a map, or something else. There’s intentional ambiguity in other areas, too. The storage wall doesn’t have to be filled, but we mixed books, sweaters, and a little stereo system in there. Because there’s a tendency in domestic spaces to privatize certain areas, we parked an eight-foot-long sliding panel in front of the clothes, but we can slide it anywhere because the track runs the entire length of the shelves. We can also turn on a projector and use the panel as a screen. We have so little space that every inch matters. It should all be meaningful and beautiful.

The bedroom offers just enough space for a bed and nightstand.

The bathroom is supposed to feel like a bubble inside the main room. The same MDF [medium-density fiberboard] panels from the floor rise up to enclose the bathroom, and mirrors make it seem like the bathroom isn’t connected to anything. Inside, the size of the tiled wall creates the illusion of more space, and this exaggerated proportion—–plus another sliding door with a view to the rear garden—–help make the room feel larger. We open the shower curtain, it’s on a hospital track, when we’re not using it.

Thanks to a skylight and the absence of conventional wall cabinets, the kitchen looks more like an airy extension of the living room than a dedicated space for cooking. With the sink, oven, and storage tucked behind and a long countertop in front, the island serves as a more versatile built-in feature.

We were really attentive to placing doors in front and back, so the house acts like a porch when it’s hot. We have vintage linen curtains indoors and Ikea canvas curtains out in front to block the late-afternoon sun. When everything is open, we get nice, cool cross-ventilation, and I love to watch the curtains swing in the breeze. This house is all about the way light and air move through. 

Molina and Turin combined angle and bar aluminum from Industrial Metal Supply Company and wheels from Pro-Fit Cabinet Hardware to design a custom track for a sliding door/projection screen fashioned out of two hollow-core doors from Stock Building Supply Company.

At $2.75 a square foot (which includes a designer discount), Molina and Turin could afford to extend matte white ceramic tiles from Dal-Tile beyond the conventional shower boundaries to give the bathroom the look of a brighter, more expansive space.

Red Plexiglas from a previous project was reused as colorful cabinetry accents. The material, purchased in a four-by-ten-foot sheet at Gavrieli Plastics, Metals & Sign Supplies, was cut, painted white on the back (which unexpectedly changed the color to pink-orange), then glued.

Concrete retaining walls form an outdoor terrace that serves as a dining area, conference room, and workshop. The three-quarter-inch construction gravel from George L. Throop Company allows rain to percolate into the ground and irrigate a lemon tree rather than create polluting runoff.

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