3-in-1 House (Schab-Sherman Residence)

by Maxime Moreau

Los Angeles continues to increase in density and there is now an urgent need for more people to find a place to live inside the city. However, the desire of the inhabitants who already live within the urban areas is to continue keeping the current low density which resembles that of a suburb. Consequently the results of this tension disturb not only the form of the urban landscape of LA, but also begin to severely transform both the shape and identity of its domestic typologies. Roger Sherman of Roger Sherman Architecture + Urban Design states that today “Los Angeles needs to build more within its existing size, within its existing footprint.”

Currently, the densification happening across multiple neighborhoods and cities combined with rapidly escalating land costs – perhaps near a million dollars for a 30-by-100 foot lot in areas like Santa Monica and Venice – numerous districts are getting out of reach. Consequently, many people are being forced to move into more affordable areas. However, in the recent years, we tend to see more homeowners building house additions to accommodate relatives, transforming the garage typology into rental apartments and integrating new rental unit(s) onto their property in order to be able to live in these high-priced neighborhoods. Thus, rental units have became a popular and ingenious means to increase the monthly income of those families who desire to live in more urban areas; the Schab-Sherman Residence exemplifies this desire. “Without a rental unit, we could never afford to build a single-family house in this area,” says Sherman.

Located in Santa Monica, the Schah Residence sits on a complicated lot; a site constrained by its small size and steep incline where up to three dwellings can be developed. Consequently, the house becomes a prototype wherein the architect creatively explores different systems in order to develop a higher density within a standard size lot.


This project presents an innovative and unconventional structure by combining two dwellings and an office space. Meanwhile, this building showcases the effect of the population growth on the manner in which the contemporary home is assembled, whether through similarities or contrasts.



Moreover, the architect investigates the building’s relationship to its site. The Schah Residence sits along the hillside in contrast to all the neighboring houses which are oriented toward the street and stand uphill on their man-made plateaus. The residence fills the entire side yard rather than the front yard. By reducing the necessary size of programmed spaces and by building upwards as opposed to outwards, the architect frees up the land, maintains the ratio between solid and void – between the building and the landscape – and finally preserves the suburban texture of the city.


(Ground Level Plan)

(Second Level Plan)

In this case the term “between” is used to describe an interrelated element of architecture and landscape. “In architecture, the “between” centres its interest on what mediates – the architecture of relation and tangency. It is the urbanism of open systems, architecture without limits, without clause, open to phenomenology of landscape, but also the architecture of conjunction…” (José Morales, The Metapolis Dictionary of Advanced Architecture, p.334).

At this present time, the economic and urban conditions of Los Angeles generate an elastic urban landscape where the traditional relationship between landscape and the architecture is transformed. “The enormous interest in landscape that is taking the contemporary architecture debate by storm is a clear sign that we can no longer rely on the classical relationship between building and ground, or on the conventional definition of the ground as delaminated, stable, horizontal, determined and homogeneous.” (Alejandro Zaera-Polo, The Metapolis Dictionary of Advanced Architecture, p.95). Consequently, many architects like Roger Sherman are now considering and exploring the space between buildings as a generator of potential relationships.

In this project, the landscaping is used as an index of the program. The landscape is configured in steps. “The lowest level is used for the services, to park and wash the car. All the dirty activities happen at the bottom of the site.


The second level is used as the public stage of the house. This is where the occupants can entertain themselves. On the other hand, the upper level is thought more as a passive area which includes a private sun terrace that can be used as the playground for the kids,” says Sherman



The landscape literally moves in and out of the structure. Like a parallel residence the landscape manipulates the architecture and vice versa. Each level accepts a different program (public, semi-private and private). Consequently, since each interior space has its own corresponding space outside, the size of the program is constrained in width. However, since the design maximizes flexibility through integrating interior and exterior as equal and interrelated components of the domestic landscape, the rooms seem much larger.


In addition, the continuous concrete floor between the exterior and the interior accentuates this relationship and serves to create meaningful spaces. As a result, the entire ground is utilized and as the architect explains: “I get more usable land and real estate on this sloping site then if it was a flat lot.”


The sloping lot has another advantage. Stepping down the hill, the house takes advantage of each distinctive level of the site by offering different views of the landscape and by differentiating the inner space between the programs. For instance, the office on the ground floor has a small oblique view to the backyard – in this case the side yard – but it is mostly oriented toward the public space, so is the tenant’s space. On the other hand, the main house overlooks the panoramic views of the Santa Monica Mountains and flows out beyond the boundaries of the site connecting the landscape of the city. “Each room and each occupant gets something different that nobody else has within the structure,” states Sherman.



“The contemporary city has been compared to a hive of diversity to explain its overall growth and organization,” writes the architect. In the natural world, the hive is defined as a structure where the members of a colony live and work with many others in close association. At a domestic scale, a dwelling can also be understood as a hive; a hive of contrasting interests wherein the disparate interests of each individual interact between each others.

In this project, the term “between” means the interaction between people or the space between people. Every element of the house, specially the circulation patterns, is used as a mediating tool in order to re-define the space between the two structures. Instead of completely separating the two habitats and therefore making them inert in their relationship, the architect creates a structure wherein both units rub against each other in a very interesting and provocative way. “I wanted to have an awareness of the tenant presence, but in a more subtle way,” says Sherman.


The tenant’s unit fills the entire width of the property on the street side. The living areas on the east side are almost entirely submerged into the ground in order to attain a certain level of privacy while at the same time dissimulating the volume from the rest of the residence. In contrast, the kitchen has an integrated window into the steps of the sun terrace than run above, allowing the renter to have a small view of the Santa Monica Canyon while transgressing the private domain – the side yard – of the main residence.


In addition, the tenant’s bedroom on the west side is placed on the second floor, covering the architect’s office below. This room is completely separated from the main house by an encased vertical skylight that cuts through the entire second floor, accentuating the division between the two domains while allowing natural light to penetrate through each level. During the day, the renter and owner both profit from the generous amount of light while at night the renter can take advantage of the activities below by borrowing some light from the translucent panel that defines the vertical surface of the skylight.



Moreover, the tenant’s bedroom and living areas are linked together by a staircase passing over the main entrance that simultaneously creates a dry porch (canopy) at the entrance. This interaction heightens the symbiotic and perhaps parasitic relationship between tenant and owner. (S.Schmidt-Wetekam in discussion with M.Moreau) As Sherman explains, “We get something back from what the tenant’s have and vice-versa.”


Subsequently, it is very difficult to know where one space begins and another ends. Like a puzzle, each piece – each space – interlocks with the other to dissolve or camouflage the space between the programs, creating a meaning that speaks of the possibilities of uniting and coupling energies and genres. Additionally, this project redefines the traditional codes and forms of the widespread and long-established duplex typology, generating an unusual residence better adapted to its site and to its social and economical situation.

The Schah Residence not only transgresses the conventions of traditional architecture and town planning, but also ends up negotiating between all the different needs, some political and others economical. It has the spirit of a game – a game, as a social function in the desire to learn.

On the other hand, the term “between” also means something slightly more abstract -the idea of building new scenarios out of the interaction between the occupants and the uses as well as the density which occurs on the site. As Sherman explains, “The space “in-between” does not have to be a bad thing where you try everything you can to avoid this sense of who is living next to you. Instead, you can produce something original out of it.”

For instance, the mailbox does not have any enclosure between the inside and outside. The lower shelf, in the architect’s office, passes thought the envelope of the building to create a point of exchange between the postman and the house – between the inside and outside. The dining room is another connecting space between the office and the kitchen. During the day, the dining table is used as a conference table, but during breakfast and dinner time it is used as a regular dining table.


Thus, a lot of these components overlap with one another to create a more active way of living, a new kind of mediating space while forming a new genre of domestic landscape.


Despite all the innovative means to merge spaces, a varying degree of autonomy between the programs is also created. For instance, the children’s bedrooms on the second floor have a second door that leads outside onto the sun terrace. So, the children can get to their bedroom without having to pass through the entire house. The same idea occurs between the parent’s and children’s bedrooms. Both spaces are separated by an encased vertical skylight which cuts the master bedroom from the other bedrooms while at the same time allowing the master bedroom to be pushed down lower few inches below the second floor level. In section each zone or area has its own diagram and independency thus making this home no longer hierarchical. Suddenly, every space and unit is developed like an open network.


With over 30 residential projects built during the past 18 years, the firm Roger Sherman Architecture + Urban Design has distinguished its residential work by employing unusual, inexpensive materials and construction methods.

However, the approach of the Schah Residence is not primarily about a consistent use of inexpensive materials, but rather the result of a unique experiment with the diagram and spatial organization. The architect’s desire to explore the position of the residence on its site, to maximize flexibility and to integrate the landscape within the program generally involves some structural inventiveness. Sherman argues that, “Complex spaces mean a lot of steel and subsequently, in this project not a lot of money was left over to spend on pricey materials.”

Despite these circumstances, the architect made good use of contrasting materials such as sheet metal, plywood, polycarbonate, exposed concrete and wood-studs, stucco and wallpaper. “What brings the house to a very high level finish is that it did not fall into an easy category of industrial aesthetic. In fact, the project has a very domestic quality even if it has a raw quality finish.” In this context, the Schah Residence breaks down the boundaries between interior design and architecture. For instance, the wallpaper, which is tied up with the stucco outside, is not only used as a decorative element, but also as an inside layer that shields the occupant from the activities outside the house. Wherever there is stucco used for the envelope outside, the inside surfaces are finished with refined and luxurious wallpaper. In this sense, the wallpaper occurs in conjunction with the stucco outside and as a result the interior finishes indicate what is happening outside the structure and literally expresses where privacy is needed.


Finally, the Schah Residence relates to the science of negotiation; how people (that is between an owner and his tenant or an architect and the city) negotiate with each other and how they strategize to win the negotiation. In this case, Sherman pushed the limits of the design as far as possible while working within the rules and constraints on the site. The integration and form of the house is not preconceived, but emerges from its environment. As Sherman affirms, “In this kind of project, you don’t know what the house will look like at the end. However, you do know that if you follow a certain logic, eventually the form and shape will emerge from this process and afterwards you can just accept it. At the end, this concept is not about an overall aesthetic evaluation but rather an overall progression.”

Thus, as every site is unique within the city, the use and relationship of the user and the program is as well. Through activating and engaging both the uniqueness of the site and uses a multitude of solutions to the urban dwelling can be discovered.

Pictues and drawings courtesy of Roger Sherman Architecture + Urban Design

Special thanks to:
Roger Sherman, Architect
Sabrina Schmidt-Wetekam, Open Form Architecture, Collaborator
Darrel Ronald, Open Form Architecture, Co-Director


~ by Open Form Architecture on May 20, 2007.

3 Responses to “3-in-1 House (Schab-Sherman Residence)”

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