Groundbreaking Design

It has been nearly half a decade, but the Dwell Home II is back! Construction began this winter in the hills outside Los Angeles, and a true model of domestic sustainability takes shape.

When we reported more than four years ago that the Dwell Home II, designed by Los Angeles–based firm Escher GuneWardena Architecture, would be built on a hillside site in Topanga Canyon, we had no idea that construction wouldn’t begin until the fall of 2008. But patience is a virtue in home design and permitting—–and the commissioning homeowners, Glen Martin and Claudia Plasencia, had enough of that to go around.

The story of the Dwell Home II will doubtless be familiar to long-term readers, but it’s worth looking back at the project to see what the fuss has been about—–especially when the impulse behind the design remains so inspiring. We kicked off the Dwell Home II Design Invitational back in the winter of 2004 with the modest goal of creating a new model for sustainable residential home design. Martin and Plasencia enthusiastically stepped in to volunteer their own plot of land as a future site for the project, and in collaboration with Dwell they picked an original and ambitious home design by Escher GuneWardena. Fast-forward to spring 2009, and the home has broken ground, construction is well under way, and the residents are chomping at the bit to move in.

Martin’s original interest in the project came from an unexpected source. When he moved to California in 1991, it was to Huntington Beach, where he took a job in the aerospace industry, working for McDonnell Douglas on the International Space Station. Martin stayed there for roughly seven years, soon getting involved with "all sorts of interesting stuff," he says, including collaborative testing projects with NASA astronauts at the Weightless Environ­ment Training Facility over in Houston. McDonnell Douglas’s location in Huntington Beach was the same facility that had developed Controlled Ecological Life Support Systems in the 1960s, including water- and air-recycling technologies.

"I got very familiar with the technological constraints of being in a closed environment," Martin explains, "and I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind. When it came time to build our own house, and Claudia and I sold our old home, we got thinking about what we really wanted out of the structure." And what they really wanted was "an integrated system—–not unlike a space station."

"When we wrote the original creative brief for the design competition," he continues, still sounding genuinely interested in the process after all these years, "we realized that there were two very different approaches to making a project green. One way is that you just substitute certain materials with a recycled something or other, and you call it green; the other is that you really think about the house itself as a living system. And Escher GuneWardena really thought about the house. They pushed the envelope of home design, and they created something that would capture all the benefits of living in Southern California."

The home’s many green features include a 360-degree, wraparound   veranda that allows for easy indoor-outdoor living; proper site orientation for winter and summer sun exposure; the installation of a backyard leach field instead of an infrastructural connection to the city sewage system; and a radiant floor, which uses small pores at foot level, called floor air channels, as vents for the passive cooling system. Cleverly disguised holes on the outside of the house—–a screen that otherwise appears ornamental—–let cool air into a crawl space located beneath the house, where it circulates before diffusing throughout the rest of the structure via the radiant floor.

Finally, after many long years of financial and bureaucratic delays, Martin and Plasencia’s space station in the Los Angeles hills is taking shape. Martin jokes that they often felt like characters in a Kafka novel—–and, indeed, the lengthy process taught them some surprising lessons about building green in the City of Angels. For instance, even in an era of ecologically responsible home landscaping, Martin and Plasencia were stunned to find that the fire department actively discourages the use of native plant life—–because the desert botany of the region presents far too strong a fire hazard.

Stay tuned: We’ll be checking in regularly with both the homeowners and the project architects to see how construction is progressing.

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