DESIGNING HOMES THAT PASS REGULATORY muster in West Hollywood, Calif., requires patience, skill, and not a little endurance. The city has strict requirements about almost every construction detail, from public and private spaces to parking, massing, setbacks, and courtyards.
But Michael Lehrer, a partner with Lehrer Architects in Los Angeles, went into this six-condominium project with his chin held high. He first penned a design for the 50-foot-by-150-foot parcel about three years ago, when land prices hadn't reached their current peak. One of the partners developing the site didn't like the level of risk. So he stalled construction for two years.
Now that the project is complete, everybody's smiling. The city likes the compact design, with its self-contained, submerged parking, individual courtyards, and bright colors. And the architect points to the innovative design with pride.
“If we had been told going into the project that we could only build on 28 feet of the 50-foot depth [due to courtyard requirements], we would have said, ‘This is not viable,'” recalls Lehrer. “But we came up with this design, and the city was absolutely thrilled.”
The six condos, named Norton Towers-on-the-Court, ultimately sold for between $670,000 (for the middle units) and $700,000 (for the two end units). Their most striking feature is the giant, angled skylights that flood the homes with daylight. These glass walls also act as natural convection chimneys, so that when doors and windows on the third floor are opened, hot air rushes out.
“The place where we paid a premium on these homes was in the glazing,” notes Lehrer. “All glass is low-E, double glazed, but that's essential. The green features of the homes are not anything that's required by the code. They're just a function of our will. But you pay a premium to have light and a view.”
Looking Inward View? What kind of view can you expect in an urban setting with a low-rise condo?
“I'm influenced by the work of [architect] Frank Gehry,” Lehrer says. “So I think the first thing you do is create your own views. That might mean looking out from your bedroom at a tower or looking across a courtyard before your eye reaches the neighbor's building.”
In the Norton Towers project, Lehrer set about creating views with the help of prodigious landscaping in each unit's courtyard. Other view-related features, including two outdoor terraces, resulted directly from city rules.
“One of the larger terraces was generated by setback requirements, which increase as you go up,” says the architect. “But the other, small one was put in primarily to help the view from inside.”
The semiprivate, 7-foot-deep landings on each second floor contain computer plug-ins, and Lehrer acknowledges that the sun beats on them during the day. Some owners, he says, are installing blinds or shades for protection. “My attitude is that if you don't have skylights, you'll never have any daylight in the space. With them, you can always add blinds to control the amount of light.”
Along with an emphasis on attractive “views”—designed to make the homes appeal to buyers—the local codes mandate a precise mix of public and private space.
“The rules are very onerous,” says Lehrer, “but you have to work within them. For example, conceptually, you are not allowed to include side yards in computing outdoor space. That's why the design fees on something like this are higher. We probably spent a year trying to make it work within the city's guidelines.”
One feature that helped the building meet those guidelines triggered an “Aha!” moment for the architect.
“Those rooftop terraces are no good unless people actually use them,” Lehrer says. “So we figured out a solution: You need to have a habitable room right next to the terrace. So we put a bedroom up there.”
Bigger Things Lehrer believes that his hard-pressed design on this project resulted in a highly unusual but workable solution for building dense, market-value housing on tiny lots. Many of the ideas, he thinks, would translate to other locations.
He observes that each courtyard includes porous surfaces around palm trees, to allow water spilling from rooftops to “re-enter the aquifer.” This feature helps address regional water concerns about a lack of nonporous surfaces in new development, he says.
“These homes are somewhat of a new typology,” he says. “In another setting, the shapes might be somewhat different, as well as the materials, and you would have to meet that city's guidelines—but the project fits in a tough space and it works. You use every inch, including an underground parking area. Nothing is wasted.”
“In some cases, we had to dig almost up to the lot line of the neighboring property,” recalls Miller. “In fact, at one point, a neighbor's concrete-block wall collapsed and fell into our excavation. We had to rebuild it.”
To prevent other such events, Miller and his crew covered the excavated soil with a waterproofing fabric and sprayed it with Gunnite, a type of fast-hardening concrete. That held the outer walls in place. “We then poured the footings right under those walls and put a structural concrete slab on top of that,” says Miller.
From grade-level up, Miller says, the first two floors went up like any other project—one floor at a time (doing all units at once), standard stick framing—with surprisingly little fuss.
On the fourth level (the third floor above the garage), however, steel columns and I-joists had to be used to meet California's seismic codes. Miller says his crews simply put in the steel header for the angled window walls, and a specialty company came in and built those on site, using aluminum framing.
“We also had tarps over the whole building during stucco application,” Miller says, “because we were so close to the neighbors we had to avoid overspray.”