Solar Umbrella House, Pugh+Scarpa Architecture
by Maxime Moreau
In the summer of 2005, I got the chance to visit the Solar Umbrella House during the AIA Venice Home Tour. I was very interested by the way the architect and owner, Lawrence Scarpa, integrated a new addition to an existing 1920’s one story bungalow. Soon after, I contacted him to discuss on the image, identity and integration of his house.
Here is my interview with Lawrence Scarpa of Pugh + Scarpa Architecture
Pictures of the house by Marvin Rand
Your work explores the notion of densification, the idea of filling the available urban space in the city. Your house is an unusual structure that explains this idea well; the Solar Umbrella House is an addition to an existing single story – 650 square foot – bungalow in Venice. So, how has the urban and architectural context of Los Angeles influenced or shaped the identity, image and integration of your house?
I would think the first most striking thing that influences my work is the fact that I grew up on the East Coast and in particular in Florida. A lot of people claim how nice the weather is there which it is in many respects. But, the humidity makes it nearly impossible to live outdoors. When I came to California and Los Angeles I was struck by its unbelievable climate. For me, it was the ultimate climate for living outside. At the same time it is a paradox. Today, in Los Angeles, the cost of living is so high that there is very little and limited space to actually take advantage of the outside as homeowner. So, this situation always has been an important idea and reality in my work; how architecture coexists in such a great climate when there is almost no land to live outside. So, I always think about this context and how to expand space with limited resources. I just think that is what I would consider logical. The land price is high and this means that houses are getting smaller and smaller. One way to actually make them larger is expand them on the perimeter and above a building.
What about the local context? The solar Umbrella House is located on a long through lot (41’ wide x 100’ long) and seems to take advantage of this situation. At the same time, it seems to establish a new order in the neighborhood. The addition is very different form all the other houses in the area, which already have a variety of styles. So, is it possible to think that the local context of Venice is an important factor that kind of settles the order, hierarchy, and the relationship of the new design?
The nice thing about Los Angeles is unlike a lot of cities that has an eclectic mix of dwellings and where neighborhoods are composed of an individual “sort” of home. The tract houses are a great example of this situation. In general, these houses are developed by a single developer and as a result, they always look the same except for their colors.
(Housing project in Palmdale, California)
However, Venice is a particular neighborhood. It has what I would consider a nice variety of homes in style and scale.
From there, I did not see a need to replicate any particular style. Instead, I was more interested in making this house as light as possible. Transparency through the house allows views to penetrate from front to back. On the site, the house has a certain lightness. It appears to sit lightly upon the land even if it is almost 30’ tall.
(Solar Umbrella House, Facade from Woodlawn Avenue)
Also, like you observed, this project is located on a block, which is dominated by through lots with public streets on two sides of the property. Most houses on the block treat Boccaccio Avenue as the front of the house and treat Woodlawn Avenue much like an alley detracting from the neighboring homes across the street. From there, we flipped the house from its original orientation. What was formerly the front and main entry at the north becomes the back. Thus, the new design reorganizes the residence towards the south. This move allows us to create new living spaces and a gracious introduction to the residence. Moreover, we shift the residence 180 degree so that we can take advantage of the indoor-outdoor living and reoriented the house to better solar conditions.
(Solar Umbrella House, Facade from Boccaccio Avenue)
(Main entry from Woodlawn Avenue)
How have these moves affected the structure of the new house?
Due to the small site there were limited options for the building placement. Therefore, our analysis focused on the placement of building components in order to take advantage of abundant natural ventilation, light and to control heat gain and heat loss. Instead of tearing down the existing structure built in 1923, we kept most of its square footage. But at the same time, we remodeled the existing house the way like most people do in this area when they add-on on an old bungalow. The addition and remodeling of the existing house creates a master bedroom on the second floor, living spaces on the first floor and porches on both sides of the lot addressing both streets equally. The existing house located along Boccaccio was retained and remodeled while the garage located on Woodlawn Avenue was demolished and replaced by a new entry and living space. By doing so we also transformed the pedestrian character along Woodlawn Avenue. Moreover, even though the completed structure is three times its original size the net increase in lot coverage is less than 400 square feet.
Would you say that your idea to graph a new structure over an existing house gave you more opportunities to express something more contemporary in the design?
First, we are interested both in how the spatial flows and spatial experience work within a house. In this case, the spatial quality is really what we focused on.
The residence responds to what we called “global regionalism” and it picked up on the California modern aesthetic and fluid connections between inside and out – that cropped up around Los Angeles beginning in the 1920’s.
Also, we are interested in a new language through the use of sustainable and regional materials mixed with global technologies such as solar panels for energy generation.
The Solar Umbrella House provides a contemporary reinvention of the solar canopy. The solar panels protect the body of the building from thermal heat gain by screening large portions of the structure from direct exposure to the intense southern California sun. Rather than deflecting sunlight, the solar skin absorbs and transforms this rich resource into usable energy. Like many design features, the solar canopy is multivalent and rich with meaning—performing several roles for functional, formal and experiential effect. Green buildings normally drum up a vision of science fairs, but the Solar Umbrella defies such stereotypes, giving sustainable living a much-needed modern point of view.
What about the boundaries between the spaces?
There are no distinct boundaries within the entire house. The spaces flow one into another. We maintain the primary layout of the existing residence, which was tightly packed with program (kitchen, dining, living, two bedrooms and a bath) and we joined the addition to the south, which includes a new entry, living area, master suite accommodations, and utility room for laundry and storage.
The kitchen, which once formed the back edge of the residence, opens into a large living area, which in turn, opens out onto a spacious front yard.
(View of the dining room and kitchen)
We removed the back wall at the south and replaced it by an operable wall of glass in the living area. This glass wall delicately defines the edge between interior and exterior.
Also, we created an unbroken visual corridor from one end of the property to the other. Taking cues from the California modernist tradition, we conceive exterior spaces as outdoor rooms. By creating strong visual and physical links between outside and inside, these outdoor rooms interlock with interior spaces, blurring the boundary and creating a more dynamic relationship between the two.
The relationship between the different programs is also blurred. Because the surrounding neighborhood has a low density of units/acre, and that most of the lots and houses are very small compared to the national average, it was important for us to efficiently use the space inside the house. For instance, some of the furniture is built-in, as is the large couch in the living room. This piece allows storage to be built into it and a portion of it can be used as a queen-sized bed for overnight guests.
Also, there are practically no doors inside the house. Even the master bedroom on the second floor is completely open.
The master suite is linked to the new living area below by a perforated-steel stair so as the hot air rises; it passes through it and out of the house. Moreover, the rooms are kept cool with cross ventilation.
The master bedroom strategically opens onto a deep covered patio which overlooks the garden. This space evokes R.M. Schindler’s Kings Road Residence. The patio extends the bedroom area outdoors, creating the sensation of a sleeping loft exposed to the exterior. This deep porch carves out an exterior space within the visual bounds of the building envelope and provides the front elevation with a distinctive character. This area of the second floor is open and at the same time protected by planes, which wrap around it.
So, the house is a dynamic composition of interlocking solids and voids. The visual corridors, stairs, bearing walls, structural columns, guardrails, built-in furniture and cabinetry vary in density, color and texture. Light penetrates the interior of the residence at several locations. Also, a series of stepped roofs, glazed walls, and clerestory windows broadcast light from multiple directions. Light and shadow constantly change the atmosphere inside the house. They become palpable formal tools that enliven the more permanent and fixed elements of the design. Together, all of these components establish an effectively layered composition rich in visual and formal interest.
How did you resolve the confrontation between the public and private space?
Well, it is not easy. I mean, I do not believe in building barriers, or that big walls should be built around homes. Instead, I think a house should be part of its environment, street or community. On the other hand, every dwelling needs to attain a certain level of privacy. In this case, we did a few things to accomplish that. First, we set down (about 16 inches) the living space partially into the ground. Also, we do have a short fence around the perimeter of the property. So, by depressing the ground plane, the peripheral walls become much taller. Consequently, within the house the occupants gain privacy.
In addition, since the master bedroom on the second floor is completely open to the outside, we created on the south façade a series of abstract fins which are made of steel and industrial brooms bristles. The west façade is screened by solar panels. So, the display of the fins and solar panels not only defines the formal expression of the residence, but also filters light, provides privacy and protects the inner space from direct views without losing this sense of openness.
All your projects seem to be influenced by the idea of Nature, and by different ways of integrating the nature into each space. So, would you say that the spaces you designed take advantage of something else to connect with the green space of the city?
Yes. On the second floor you can overlook and get a better view of the city. In fact you can see a lot of it. You can see the Santa Monica Mountains, the marina’s towers, the ocean… So it is very impressive. At the same time, you can look down to the garden and the pool. So these elements create an interesting connection between inside and outside. In some sense, both the inner spaces and terrace flow out beyond the boundaries of the site to connect with the landscape of the city.
Compared to other firms in Los Angeles who design sustainable architecture, your projects exploit not only the potential for performance but also the sensibility of those strategies and materials in order to achieve a rich and interesting aesthetic experience. So, how have the notions of sustainability contributed to transform the image and identity of the Solar Umbrella House?
First of all, I will argue, that a building that is an energy hog, that everyone loves, is more sustainable than a building that uses no energy that nobody likes.
To that extent, sustainability issues are more a leisure then architecture. Furthermore, performance is not a substitute for good design. It is unfortunate that in this society it is becoming a tag line for many designers to be a sustainable architect. Sustainability is not really a paradigm for architecture. It is just a layer that should not be implemented in a different way than making a building handicap accessible. I mean, this is one of the fundamental principles of architecture: a building should work with its site and climate.
The Solar Umbrella is very site specific. Even if this residence has a lot of similarities with other of our projects, I think that one thing that holds together is that we look deeply into regional issues, like the climate, as well as broader global issues. So, the two are really fused together to create the identity of the house.
For example, the house is organized so that over 90% of the glazing is on the north and south facades. The south and west facades are shaded by a series of louvers and solar panels. To compensate for the temperature differential between day and night we precisely placed concrete floor and some concrete walls as thermal heat sinks.
Utility costs in the past have been relatively low in this country, but we continue to see utility prices rise. In this context, the solar panels will become even more important. The Solar Umbrella showcases the solar panels in a way that lets people see that they can be beautiful and serve a dual purpose.
The solar panels are not consigned to a one-dimensional utilitarian application, instead they are integrated and form canopies that shades the building. Furthermore, the solar panels define the envelope, provide shelter and overhang on the south-facing areas in order to control and regulate summer and winter heat gain and establish a distinctive architectural expression.
I believe that a building should take some responsibility for the environment however; you can’t have a really sustainable building if it’s not good design. People won’t want to live in it. Playful elements are as important as avoiding waste and living responsibly.
Your office is part of a small group of architects that experiment with unconventional materials. So can you elaborate on the interaction of the different material and their effect on the space and identity of the house?
One thing we try to do is something that architects do not address enough in buildings: the tactile qualities of architecture: to make people want to touch them. This is an important sense as designers.
We look for materials that are easily overlooked. We try to find the extraordinary within the ordinary as a way to reveal a story that is already imbedded in the material. Throughout the residence, we resourcefully took materials and contextually repositioned them as design elements.
All the wood products were constructed from composite recycled material. OSB (oriented strand board), a structural grade building material composed of leftover wood chips compressed together with high strength adhesive, was used for cabinetry, structure and flooring when concrete was not used. Once we sanded, stained and sealed the material, the OSB floor paneling provides a cost effective and materially responsible alternative to hardwood. We used integral colored pigment stucco on the exterior so that painting is never required. Off-the-shelf elements, such as industrial bristle, were used for the fins in lieu of a more costly material. Also, we used wood products from other construction sites for all the concrete forming. The remaining materials after demolition were used for structural framing. Homosote, an acoustical panel made from recycled newspaper, was sanded and used as a wall finish material.
(Industrial bristle are used as sun screen)
Materials were selected for both performance and aesthetic value. We replaced conventional wood framing with metal studs. We used decomposed granite and permeable gravel in most places (including the carport and driveway) rather than non-permeable surface such as concrete or stone. These materials allow the ground to absorb water and in turn, mitigate urban run-off to the ocean. So, this project is a rich and unconventional collage of recycled and sustainable materials. The textures and palette of the building are low maintenance and at the same time provide an aesthetically appealing landscape.
Los Angeles is in many ways a test ground of architectural experimentation. How important is experimentation in your practice?
Experimentation is crucial. We have done a lot of interior projects and for us, even if people think that interiors are not really architecture, it has been a laboratory. Inside, you have much less risks with waterproofing issues or other issues that you run into when you have to build on the exterior of the building. So, interiors have been a testing ground for casting new ideas and elements; almost like a pre-stage for architecture. So, I think it is vital to experiment and to look at new ways of doing things. Unfortunately, it is much easier to just do what you know instead of trying new things. Also, there is a constant struggle or balance in order to get the project done, not going broke and still pushing for new branches.
The Solar Umbrella exposes valuable lessons on overcoming barriers to green, affordable development and showcases new strategies and technologies for others to build upon. In the last years, several tours and events have been help at the house. Over 1000 people have visited the Solar Umbrella. This project exposes valuable lessons on overcoming barriers to green, affordable development and showcases new strategies and technologies for other to build upon.