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Saga Of A Small House: Built, Burned & Reborn

March 10, 1985|JOAN DEKTAR

Warmed by the sun, cooled by breezes from the ocean and scented by chaparral, this is a true country house. It's in Malibu, set on a hillside above a stream that flows year-round, and it has a small orchard, berry bushes that are planted along a fence, a chicken coop and a big corral for goats. Dogs gambol about.

It's now Gareth Davies' home as he rediscovers country life. Until about a year ago, Davies appeared to be the archetypal city person. London-bred, he has been enmeshed in Hollywood as producer of "Remington Steele" for MTM Productions, working 16-hour days. Now he's finding a way to merge the necessities attendant to his career with living independently in the country.

The country experience was instilled in Davies years ago. As a child in London, he was always around his grandmother's gardens and florist business, and as a teen-ager, he reluctantly gave up city weekends with chums to work with his father on the land--on his family's "holding" in the country.

Davies bought this house exactly as you see it here. It's not the typical rustic-cottage image that the mention of a little house in the country might suggest. Built of wood, glass and stucco, it exemplifies a country house in today's architectural idiom.

Designed by Conrad Buff III FAIA, of Buff & Hensman, the house is actually not a single structure. Rather, it follows a sophisticated plan that includes the natural landscape. The approach to the house is through a carport just off the paved hillside road. That structure is, in effect, a portal from which to view the house. Expanding the breadth of the house further is a separate bedroom structure that is connected to the main building by a covered bridge set on piers.

Custom houses always represent an unspoken story of how they came to be designed and how they were built. This house came about because it was former owner Randy Nauert's dream to prove that a young couple could find some land and build a house, even with a limited budget.

"At the time I started this," Nauert explains, "a friend bought a 40-year-old house under the flight pattern at Santa Monica Airport for $80,000. I knew that there had to be a better alternative in finding a place to live."

So Nauert began combing the Southland for a property that would remind him of the country aura of the Palos Verdes Peninsula during the years he was growing up in the '50s and '60s. Nauert is not a professional builder. He owns music-publishing and recording companies, plays sitar and bass guitar and is into electronic music. In the '60s, while still in high school, he started making surfing records with friends. He was a member of two performing groups--the Bel-Airs and the Challengers. He went on to travel the world, and he got married. And he built a studio for himself in a storefront near the intersection of the Hollywood and Harbor freeways. From that venture, Nauert got his first experience with construction and "learned that one big room could be everything I needed."

To find an architect for his house project, he asked for recommendations from friends and sought the advice of Morley Baer, whose photographs of adobes Nauert had purchased. "Baer told me to talk to Conrad Buff," Nauert says.

Buff & Hensman is not your typical architectural firm; almost 95% of its creative energy is channeled into residential construction. Since the early '50s, the company has been an active exponent of the design-and-build philosophy, closely supervising the construction of many houses. Weighing those factors, Nauert asked Buff to design his house.

Doing most of the construction himself, Nauert completed the house as designed--a redwood cube of about 1,200 square feet, a house in harmony with its natural canyon setting.

Then tragedy, in the form of the Malibu fire of Oct. 22, 1978, struck; the house burned. As Buff describes it: "The house was reduced to some salvageable foundations and a pile of melted nails."

With the determination that had allowed him to complete the original house in about two years, Nauert undertook the rebuilding, with a few small improvements.

"The client elected to rebuild," Buff says. "The same drawings were employed, but with several alterations. And the cladding was changed from redwood to stucco, a less-flammable material."

The house is set down the hillside "for an intimate view of the canyon," Buff says. "By agreement with Randy, we wanted to keep the site as natural as possible, so the approach to the house is viewed through the carport, which acts as a portal. We didn't want to mar the landscape with an asphalt road or have the automobile intrude on the house."

The view from the portal is directly toward the house, a symmetrical structure whose limited glass areas--conforming to energy-consumption regulations (Title 24)--form a dramatically soaring space that looks onto the natural hillside. "Glass has become a precious resource," the architect says.

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