Lawrence Scarpa has an intriguing insight as to why solar-powered houses have yet to take the country by storm. Aside from the economic and political hurdles, he says, “the truth is that solar energy will never catch on unless people like it.” He sees strong solar architecture as the ultimate solution. It’s a challenge he and his wife, Angela Brooks, have been more than willing to take on.
Scarpa and Brooks are architects and co-principals in a Santa Monica design firm where exploring new technologies is a daily practice. When it came time to build a home for themselves, they were eager to see how far they could go in applying their green-design know-how in their everyday lives. It took seven years, but they succeeded in creating a solar-powered house that meets their high design standards while costing almost nothing to run. By combining avant-garde aesthetics with sound environmental practices, they’ve blown away the lingering frumpy image that helps keep solar houses out of the mainstream.
The couple’s forward-thinking home started with a tiny vintage Spanish-style bungalow in Venice, California, which they bought and remodeled in 1997. “We stripped off all the hacienda charm in that first renovation,” says Scarpa. Although the house was small, the property—a deep through lot with streets front and rear—was ideal for future expansion. The Venice location was promising, too. The bohemian beachside community is a well-known architectural incubator: Trendsetting modern houses from the likes of Frank Gehry, Lorcan O’Herlihy, and David Hertz regularly pop up on streets lined with tall palms and colorful bungalows. Scarpa and Brooks could have contributed an adventurous design with conventional systems to that mix and still held their heads up. But their professional and personal lives propelled them in the direction of the house they call Solar Umbrella.
In the 1990s, Scarpa and Brooks, through their firm Pugh + Scarpa Architecture, gained a reputation for imaginative, playful design schemes outfitted with unconventional materials. For creative-minded clients, including a number of Los Angeles film editing and production studios, they came up with one innovative idea after another. They brought in industrial shipping containers to house Reactor Films, covered walls in Dixie cups at Creative Domain, and mounted translucent Ping-Pong balls on the walls at Jigsaw. In the their own exceptional workplace, they even hired an employee whose job is just to have fun experimenting with new products and materials.
At the same time, they were becoming serious sustainability pioneers. Their first solar-powered effort—Colorado Court, a low-income apartment house in Santa Monica—cemented their environmental commitment. When the project was named a finalist in the 2003 World Habitat Awards, Pugh + Scarpa became solar celebrities virtually overnight.
The firm’s breakthrough idea at Colorado Court is stunningly simple: Solar panels are treated as art objects—exciting new elements to be integrated into the overall architectural design. “I was inspired by the sheer beauty of solar panels,” Scarpa recalls. “They rekindled an interest I’d had 20 years ago in school.”
The architects chose polycrystalline solar panels, which are vivid blue. Then, circumventing the traditional practice of tilting solar panels so that the sun hits them at a 90 degree angle for maximum efficiency, they mounted them vertically on the outer walls. Set against the sage-green stucco building, the blue panels gleam in the sun like crushed sapphires.
With their first solar success as a springboard, Brooks and Scarpa became increasingly vocal champions of sustainable design. They cofounded the nonprofit Livable Places to fund environmentally friendly projects and to help build public support for sustainability. They also began advising the U.S. Green Building Council on developing LEED rating standards for this emerging field.
Despite their busy professional lives, the couple still had energy for the bungalow breakout. “We’d drawn up plans for a single-story expansion, then our son Calder came,” Brooks says. “He changed everything!” To provide private spaces for themselves and their son, they designed a two-story addition to the bungalow. They also decided to flip the house, transforming the old backyard into a front entry courtyard. When you visit at nightfall, walking into the courtyard feels like entering a full-fledged work of contemporary art: a cross between a rusty steel Richard Serra sculpture and Dan Flavin’s ethereal light installations. Opening the gate—a rusted steel plate—leads you to a gravel-bordered grass courtyard with a raised concrete pool, lit from within, as luminous as an aquatint. The water spills over into an adjacent trough where silver balls bobble. A 30-foot-long line of fire blazes along the front courtyard wall, suggesting a magical desert encampment.
Then there is the arresting presence of the house itself, where ingenious 3-D special effects are layered onto a simple glass-walled box. On the left of the large sliding glass doors, there’s a concrete panel imprinted with ghostly images of eucalyptus leaves gathered from the property. Beside it hangs a ladderlike screen that’s covered with, of all things, the bristles of industrial brooms. Overhead, the house is framed by a bold horizontal canopy of rusted steel beams inset with milky-white glass-encased solar panels that glow softly in the evening light. A similar structure is mounted vertically against the left side of the house. If you didn’t know those steel frames encased solar panels, you could be forgiven for thinking they were merely an aesthetic choice.
Crossing the threshold from the outdoor path that runs through a koi pond almost feels like walking on water. The front door, a great slab of cherry wood sculpted with ripples, opens into a double-height living room. With its glass front wall slipped into side pockets, the living area and courtyard merge into a single continuous space. Clerestory windows also contribute to the open-air feeling. “We wanted to live that wonderful indoor-outdoor California life, but with more light and space,” explains Brooks.
Upstairs, in the master bedroom suite, the indoors-out atmosphere is enhanced by a 200-square-foot rooftop terrace. The bedroom also serves as Scarpa’s painting studio. Calder, now six, got his own bedroom suite. “But he likes to come up here and paint on my paintings,” Scarpa says. “This whole house is like a playhouse for him.” Downstairs, the open kitchen/ dining area (renovated in 1997) is in the rear, in the former bungalow.
Solar Umbrella was inspired by Paul Rudolph’s 1953 Umbrella House in Lido Shores, Florida, an icon of Sarasota School modernism that offered startling new climate-control interventions. To mitigate the scorching sun, a wooden trellis, reputedly fashioned of tomato stakes, covered the roof, the swimming pool and the terrace. (It has since been removed.) “He was my hero,” says Scarpa, a Florida native, who as a young man worked in Rudolph’s New York City architecture office.
Brooks and Scarpa took Rudolph’s trellis idea one step further, installing solar panels into a steel-beam canopy that shades the house and provides electricity. The canopy is part of a 4.5-kilowatt solar system that powers almost the entire 1,900-square-foot house, and the pool. There are 89 BP Solar amorphous photovoltaic solar panels mounted in the steel-beamed structures, on the roof, and atop the carport. “It’s not rocket science,” says Brooks. “Our system is simple. We used normal electricity. We did the wiring diagrams. It could all be done by a nonprofessional.”
The solar system has a net-metered connection to the utility company’s power grid. The couple effectively sells electricity to the company during daylight and buys it back at night. Of the $340,000 spent on the addition, $34,000 went for the solar components, reduced to $11,510 after rebates and tax credits. Brooks and Scarpa expect to break even financially in seven years—sooner if energy prices keep rising.
“Even without rebates,” Scarpa says, “we spent $34,000—about the cost of a new SUV—for a lifetime of free energy.” They also got a very cool new place to live.