If you were planning to build yourself a house in the high desert east of Los Angeles, where temperatures climb higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit each summer and drop to nearly 32 degrees during the night in winter, what kind of habitat would you choose? A solid enclosure with thick walls and small windows providing respite from the extreme conditions—or a completely exposed glass box without air-conditioning?
Linda Taalman and Alan Koch, of Taalman Koch Architects, chose the latter. Earlier this year, the couple completed work on their glass "iT House," a lovely, minimal home that tests the limits of living lightly on the land in the desert near Joshua Tree National Park.
Taalman and Koch are Los Angeles–based design partners who earned their stripes with a refined, unobtrusive design for DIA:Beacon in upstate New York. A few years ago, they hatched the idea of the iT House. The name, conceived with amusing chutzpah, doesn’t refer to "information technology," but rather to "It," as in hot, as in "It Girl." Their idea was to create a house from prefabricated structural components and include glass walls on which artists would later apply surface graphics.
Having already built such a home for a client in Orange County, they were eager to construct their own. They looked for a site in L.A., but it was too expensive, says Taalman. "We’d been going out to Joshua Tree for a long time, and there was something about that place that kept drawing us back." So they bought five acres above quirky Pioneertown, a onetime set for Westerns that has become a tiny community in its own right. They found themselves working on a house that would be a backdrop not just for an artist’s application, but for a stunning, elemental desertscape. The rolling terrain is dotted with large, time-smoothed rocks and arid desert scrub in subtle shades of green, yellow, and gray; there are piñon pines, the occasional Joshua tree, and jumping cholla cacti with clusters of threatening needles.
Taalman and Koch started building their house in the middle of 2006, just before their daughter, Oleana, was born. The construction was a labor of love, a sort of 21st-century barn raising during which they and their friends came out on weekends to work together. The result was an 1,100-square-foot house that cost approximately $265,000 to build (excluding the cost of land). They assembled the Bosch aluminum framing system and roofed it in perforated steel decking, creating a bedroom wing and a living wing organized around two courtyards. They then installed radiant heating in the floors, and built the cabinets out of Formica or plastic-laminated plywood. These double as solid walls—in fact, they are some of the few vertical planes in the house that are
not made from glass.
The basic thinking, Taalman says, was to "take advantage of industries outside of the traditional domestic building environment. The iT House is a collection of off-the-shelf manufacturing systems that we’ve combined—like the Bosch framing usually used in robotics and the Epic roof construction system used in airports and malls."
But the goal was emphatically not to create a prefab product as an end in itself. Taalman refutes the notion that "architecture, with a snap of the fingers, can follow the automobile industry." She argues, instead, that the "fantasy of prefab today, where the building gets driven out of the factory and plopped down" onsite, is simply not realistic in view of the costs and inefficiencies of transporting such a large object. "We are not looking to crack the nut of making a cheap, affordable, mass-produced home product," she says. "We’re looking to make buildings that have merit but that don’t rely on a single contractor and that enable us to take control over the process. We can then specify the drawings and get a high-quality product rapidly assembled on site."
Having built the light industrial shell, they then applied another layer to the house, with an entirely different aesthetic: that of the handcrafted and the custom-made. Their artist friends, Sarah Morris and Liam Gillick, designed a plaid-like grid for the walls, and designer Elody Blanchard created floor-to-ceiling curtains for the bedroom and bathroom. The curtains in the bedroom are made of thick felt, and in the bathroom Blanchard used a cotton blend—in each case, with a mesmerizing pattern of thread-lines and grommets.
The iT House builds on ideas explored over the last century: the all-glass house and the house made from industrial components. The desert modernist Albert Frey, as well as L.A.’s Case Study House architects, traded solid walls for glass—and, of course, Philip Johnson put himself on the map with his all-glass house in New Canaan, Connecticut. Architects like Pierre Koenig and Craig Ellwood built with standardized metal components, and this remains a common approach in Europe, first popularized in the 1970s when the Pompidou Center, by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, made a virtue out of industrial aesthetics. However, the iT House is among the few that so harmoniously blend high-tech and handmade, harnessing the surrounding landscape. A day spent inside Taalman’s and Koch’s house is a day spent marveling at the strange, panoramic beauty of the desert and at the subtlety of colors, both inside and out. As sunlight passes through the angled phases of the day, it transforms the concrete floor and spare furnishings into a desert-modern version of a Dutch interior painting.
The other goal of the house was to embrace, not hide from, the elements. Philip Johnson’s glass walls, points out Koch, were hermetically sealed. Theirs are not just openable, they are designed to function "like a sailboat. You’ve got to work the house to make it respond. In the summer, which is very extreme, you close all the east-facing doors in the morning and you open up the west—and then you flip it in the afternoon." Koch grew up spending summers with his architect grandfather in Ventura County, sleeping outside with his family on cots in a "hobo camp" that his grandfather designed. "I didn’t realize how much being out in a space like that was important to me until we built this house."
To make such naked shelter possible they employed passive heating and cooling strategies—the windows and sliding doors are made of Solar Ban 60 glass, coated with a low-e coating for long-wave radiation—and the roof is configured so that it blocks the summer sun. In winter, when the sun is lower and temperatures drop, sunlight can penetrate through the windows. Solar power generates hot water and electricity. Despite these efforts, however, the couple admits that the house gets very hot in summer and very cold in winter.
But exposure is what they like about it. "It can be really windy sometimes and I wonder if it’s going to blow away," says Taalman. "But I’m leery of spaces that are over-controlled. I like to know if it’s day or night—and when it’s hot, it’s totally different than when it’s cold. And when it snows it’s magical. You can see the moon rise and you can wake up with the sun. We don’t use any clocks out here."