In the summer of 2007, developers Michael Kyle and Todd Wexman broke ground for a complex of seven houses in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Then the economy stalled. Kyle’s wife, Joanne Higgins, recalls that panic set in. "We were just, like, what are we going to do?" But she happened to hear a story on public radio about communities in the United States with high concentrations of Toyota Priuses. Higgins went online and found out that Silver Lake was one of those communities, and had a Eureka moment: "It meant those people were very conscious of sustainability."
Higgins, a Pilates teacher who was already interested in environmental issues, pushed her husband to up the ante on the energy-saving aspects of the project. She argued that the upfront extra investment would ultimately lead to sales.
So they took the plunge and incorporated what are now considered standard features in a self-respecting "green" home: radiant heating in the floor, tankless water heaters, low-flush toilets, Energy Star kitchen appliances, and high-efficiency HVAC, as well as solar-ready wiring and roof jacks for owners who chose solar energy. In addition, the homes offered energy savings through passive measures like light and ventilation from expansive, dual-glazed, low-emissivity operable windows and skylights.
Higgins’s foresight was vindicated. A year and a half later, before the Auburn 7 houses were even completed, all the units, sized around 2,000 square feet each, sold in a down market for the upmarket price of around $840,000. All but one of the new owners chose to invest an extra $18,000 to install solar panels (now yielding monthly energy bills of $0 per unit).
New residents were also drawn to the stunning site at the peak of the hill and an ingenious design that rendered the homes sustainable in a way that went beyond the requisite energy-saving features— by maximizing density and sense of community.
Auburn 7 was designed by MASS Architecture and Design, a Silver Lake–based firm founded in 2005 by Gregory Williams and Ana Henton that has garnered attention for single-family houses as well as effortlessly hip gourmet outlets like the Intelligentsia coffee bar in Venice and the Silver Lake Wine Company. Auburn 7 offered a new challenge in the form of Los Angeles’s recent Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance. This may sound like dry planning-speak, but understanding this ordinance is key to appreciating the building’s design. Los Angeles is the way it is—endless miles of sprawling, mostly single-family homes—because the zoning and building codes keep it that way. Williams, coprincipal of MASS, explains that most houses are expected to have a "20-foot front-yard setback, a 15-foot rear setback, and ten feet between houses." The alternatives are generally multifamily rentals and condos.
City planners, understanding that this arrangement was increasingly untenable in a region where house prices were skyrocketing and the population increasing, conceived the ordinance in 2004. It permitted developers to take sites of more than 5,000 square feet originally zoned for multifamily buildings and build "structurally independent" homes on smaller-than-usual parcels. Ideally, the homes would share driveways and be accessed via an alley between streets, not the street itself.
That is exactly how Auburn 7 is arranged: Seven town homes, with slivers of air between them, possess the appearance and energy-saving advantages of row houses. A shared walkway utilizes less land and brings neighbors together. It is an arrangement, says resident Francisco Owens, "where there is enough separation from your neighbors that you feel private, but enough continuity to have a sense of community and know your neighbors." Owens, an architect who lives with his wife, Camille, and four-year-old daughter, Sophia Apple, says they also like that "we are using fewer resources by having seven families on a piece of land that might typically house just one."
The seven homes bring to mind a tight street in an old European city, albeit old Europe in a still-car-dependent California-modern idiom, with open-plan living areas, high ceilings, and patios in front accessed via doors that can be opened fully to create a sense of inside-outside living.
The architects strove to give each house a distinct character; the units step back from each other and feature window and surface treatments that alternate vertical and horizontal panes with bronze or silver anodized aluminum. Ana Henton, design partner on the project, recalls with delight that a child of one of the homeowners told her the brown vertical and silver horizontal treatments reminded him of the "trees and lake in Silver Lake."
As in any community, the residents each added their own personal stamp. This was intentional, says Henton, who says that they kept the interiors "as open plan as possible to allow people to create their own spaces inside." A little neighborly sleuthing reveals a living room piled high with books in one unit, a medley of furniture in another, and, in the Owens household, a more ascetic arrangement of minimal modern furnishings, taupe walls, and light porcelain tile throughout."I love that each one is different," says Henton.
Touring the house owned by Higgins and Kyle (who committed to their investment by moving in), Henton delights in the traditional furniture and distinctive paint colors Higgins chose. In fact, Higgins, who previously lived very happily in an old Spanish-style house, says a perceived lack of comfort "was one of my fears about moving to a contempo-rary home. I had all this traditional furniture and I thought, How is my furniture going to live in a box? I didn’t want to have all that angular stuff. I like some of the big puffy lines of traditional furniture. I didn’t want to be an Unhappy Hipster."
One of the assets of living at Auburn 7 is the piece of land that faces the homes, owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and accessible to the homeowners. The one-time trash- and weed-filled dump has been nurtured by residents into an urban farm (the only conditions laid down by the LADWP: no concrete garden walls, permanent structures, or plants taller than 25 feet). If the agency were to take back the land and develop it, the Auburn 7 community would lose this sense of connection to the land—and presumably feel much more hemmed in than at present.
Luckily, such a change is highly unlikely, and residents can enjoy the full potential of the property and vegetable garden. Rachelle Reyes Wenger, a director of public policy and community advocacy for a large California-based hospital system, lives with her two children in one of the homes. "I’m so lucky to be living in this house," she says. "This community and this development are forward thinking and forward living; this is where we need to be now."