Tad Beck, an artist with a keen concern for the environment, is happy to talk about the features that make his new house green, including the solar panels on the roof and the bamboo on the kitchen floor. But he also has a way of focusing on what’s really important. "The biggest green move we made was that we reused an old building," he says.
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Indeed, his new house in Los Angeles—which includes a pair of studios (one for Beck, the other for his partner, fashion photographer Shawn Smith)—is an old warehouse building, largely unchanged on the exterior, except for a layer of charcoal gray paint and new front door. The outside is virtually windowless: The building abuts commercial structures on three sides and faces a busy street on the fourth. But inside, Beck, with the help of designer Riley Pratt, created a home around a luminous interior courtyard. The 10-by-12-foot opening, which is framed by four sliding glass doors, provides a semblance of California living—the suburban ideal of rooms extending onto terraces—within an urban shell.
The courtyard wasn’t Pratt’s only intervention. Fitting an apartment and two workable studios into a 2,800-square-foot building required him to make full use of the building’s 12-plus-foot ceiling height. Pratt lifted the apartment up on a four-and-a-half-foot-high platform, from which it overlooks the two workspaces. That way, the 900-square-foot apartment feels expansive, borrowing space, visually, from the two studios. (As a bonus, a vast crawl space under the apartment is used for storing eveything from tools to snowboards.)
When Beck moved to Los Angeles to attend the Art Center College of Design, he traded in a sprawling loft on lower Broadway in Manhattan for a Hollywood bungalow and a separate studio, to which he biked miles each day. After three years studying, he was offered a teaching post at University of Southern California and was ready to buy a place. But Beck, who has moved from painting to working in still and video photography, and Smith, whose fashion photography needed room to maneuver, required two studios in addition to their living space, something a conventional house wouldn’t likely provide.
Encouraged by a USC housing program that gives grants to faculty who buy property in the communities bordering the campus, Beck started looking in areas he hadn’t previously considered. He found his building, which was being used as an adult magazine warehouse, in the ethnically diverse North University Park neighborhood, next door to the site of one of the earliest documented gay churches in Los Angeles. (It was destroyed in an arson fire in 1973, which Beck sympathized with.)
Pratt added significant structural support to bring the building up to code, but the biggest technical challenge was the courtyard. Los Angeles is not exempt from heavy rainfall, so to keep the glass-walled space from becoming a fish tank, Pratt designed a hardwood deck above what is essentially a giant shower pan, tilted down toward a corner drain. A small succulent garden (the couple asked each friend to bring a cactus to their housewarming party) on the deck also helps with drainage.
A simple bedroom, lined with closets and anchored by a platform bed, sits on one side of the courtyard; a ceiling track allows the same curtain that conceals the closets to continue all the way around the room, creating an ethereal enclosure. On the other side of the courtyard is the kitchen, which Pratt designed minimally, using bamboo for the cabinets and floor, and Richlite (which is made of paper and resin) for the counters. Linking the kitchen and bedroom is the living room, where a huge built-in sofa (with storage for linens and DVDs underneath the cushions) provides ample seating in what is otherwise a compact room. Beck carefully selected a few pieces of mid-century furniture, including an Eames lounge chair—his favorite perch—and a complementary rocker. A ledge supports a large-screen television on which Beck can view and show his artwork.
From the apartment, stairways lead down to the two studios: Smith’s in the front of the building (giving models and stylists easy access from the street), and Beck’s in the back. Adding to this one-story warehouse’s multilevel feel is a galvanized steel staircase, which leads from the courtyard to the roof and creates a perfect place to sunbathe—except on the portion set aside for solar panels, which provide much of the building’s electricity and hot water. (In summer, Beck says, "We get to watch the meter go backwards.")
Pratt has given Beck and Smith a house where everything fits perfectly. "I look at the house and don’t see a thing I want to change," says Beck. "And I can ride my bicycle to work."