"Today’s action will bring about a healthier city and a greener planet," Eric Garcetti, president of the Los Angeles City Council, declared in mid-February. He was celebrating the progress of a green building ordinance that he had been steering through the council. The ordinance will require projects larger than 50,000 square feet to be LEED-certified, and it will incorporate "sustainability guidelines" into the city’s building codes. With that ordinance’s passage, a fellow councilperson suggested, Los Angeles would take "another great step toward becoming a greener, more sustainable city."
Garcetti, 37, is an engaging and smart young legislator who, together with his equally dynamic partner, Amy Elaine Wakeland, 38, has been active in progressive politics since they met as Rhodes scholars at Oxford University in 1993. Garcetti is currently the state co-chair of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, while Wakeland is hard at work fighting for the expansion of public parks in low-income neighborhoods.
But if their first love is political action, they also share an interest in design, and they’ve spent several years adapting and landscaping a mid-century home in the neighborhood of Echo Park, near downtown Los Angeles.
As I drive to their house to pay a visit, I ponder what to expect. Do Garcetti and Wakeland practice what they preach? Is Garcetti’s home life as green as the legislation he promotes?
Their home is perched on a very steep hill, overlooking the small houses and apartment buildings that cling to the slopes of this ethnically—and economically—mixed neighborhood. There, parked in the driveway, is a silver Toyota RAV4-EV. Garcetti has been driving an electric car since GM released its leasable EV1 in 1997; in fact, he was featured in the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" as one of those fighting to stop GM from killing his car.
Garcetti and Wakeland’s house was designed in the early 1950s by architect Daniel Dworsky, the founder of a large corporate firm whose projects include the Bradley International Terminal at LAX.
It doesn’t scream "classic high modern" in the sense of a Neutra or an Ellwood; rather, it’s a simple post-and-beam building in olive-gray stucco with large metal-framed windows. It evokes the pleasantly imperfect quality of a lived-in house that has weathered multiple owners and add-ons.
When Garcetti and Wakeland bought the house, they wanted to emphasize its modernist characteristics while bringing it into the next century. With the help of architect Elissa Scrafano, the structure is now a study in openness, simplicity, and light, with the bonus features of sustainable materials and greater energy efficiency.
Right from the start, says Scrafano, "Eric and Amy were looking at sustainability. They are both modernists so it made the project that much more interesting." The concept, she explains, "was to weave the bad parts of the house with the good parts and to capture more light and views. We took down walls and eliminated a bathroom where the dining table now sits, and we cut large holes in the back of the house to make the connection to landscape and nature beyond. I think the biggest thing was the views and connections from the interior to the exterior. To achieve this, some of the work we did was additive and some was subtractive."
In adapting the house, the couple and their architect often came up against building codes that impinged on the design. For example, the windows upstairs could not be as large and low as the originals downstairs, and when they added to the second floor they had to cut back the rocky hill to create a safe distance. As someone in the business of creating rules, Garcetti found the process quite educational: "It helped me see what my constituents go through when they do remodels and come face-to-face with ever-evolving building codes. It made me appreciate that laws have to be both well intentioned and user-friendly."
The main objective with the renovation was to make the house as energy efficient and nontoxic as possible. The house does have air-conditioning, but they maximized cross ventilation by installing windows on all sides. They installed a tankless water heater and solar paneling on the flat roof, which provides 50 percent of their energy; they laid bamboo flooring on the second level, built closet doors of recycled plastic, and constructed decks out of sustainable wood treated with nontoxic sealant. No-VOC Yolo paints were used throughout the house. And, at around 2,000 square feet, they kept the whole project a relatively modest size.
Not unlike the home itself, the furnishings embody livability rather than perfection. Several of the pieces are hand-me-downs from Garcetti’s parents. (Gil Garcetti was the district attorney for the City of Los Angeles and now photographs art, architecture, and cultural subjects; Sukey Roth Garcetti headed up a local charitable foundation.) The family grew up in Encino in the San Fernando Valley, in a thoroughly contemporary home. "It was nice growing up with modernist parents," says Garcetti, pointing out the metal dining chairs with vinyl padding which he used every day as a child.
While the remodel was in process, Wakeland and Garcetti tilled the land. In addition to their own yard, the couple acquired two steep, unbuildable adjoining lots. With the help of Sean Femrite Environmental Design Studio, they are transforming this 19,000-square-foot yard into a full-blown productive garden. Wakeland, who was schooled in the arts of horticulture, canning, and bottling as a child in her native Indiana, has also built a "worm factory" in the yard: a half-food, half-paper tub in which worms merrily turn trash into rich compost. She propels herself by rope up the 35-to-45-degree hill and points out the fruit trees, vegetables, and 22 perennial herbs that they harvest for their own table and for friends. They even trade fruits and vegetables with a fellow councilperson, Bill Rosendahl, for eggs from his chicken coop. "Last time I sent him a basket," Wakeland recalls, "he announced it on the TV broadcast of a city council meeting."
For Scrafano, working with the couple was highly rewarding: "Both Eric and Amy had an incredibly rational, clear vision and never strayed from the design concept from day one. They are incredibly committed to what they do and that was reflected in the design process."
Everything about the house suggests that Garcetti and Wakeland more than practice what they preach; they are trying to channel into political action a philosophy of life that they have been honing for many years. Yet, the two are living an essentially suburban life, albeit as earth-friendly a one as possible. I ask them whether it wouldn’t be even more sustainable to reside in a multifamily dwelling in Garcetti’s district or downtown and walk or bus to City Hall. Both Garcetti and Wakeland say this is an issue with which they have grappled.
"I would say that the truth is that everyone living in North America could be more green," says Wakeland, "and it’s important that when people start doing this work they focus on what they can accomplish without getting too guilty. People need to feel like they are making positive contributions moving forward." Pointing out that a public transit line is just three blocks from their house, Garcetti concludes: "I think L.A. offers a way to live with nature while living green so it doesn’t have to be either-or. I think we can live in harmony with both the city and the topography and lifestyle that has always defined Los Angeles."