Despite what glimpses of the city's changing skyline and streetscape might indicate, the most prevalent type of construction in Los Angeles is not office buildings, mini-malls and apartment complexes.
It is additions to single-family houses, ranging from modest breakfast nooks, half baths and nurseries to sprawling expansions containing baronial living rooms, bedroom suites, country kitchens and guest and servant wings.
According to the Los Angeles Department of Buildings, about half the 40,000 construction permits issued in the city last year were for additions, a marked increase over previous years. And indications are that this year the number will increase even further to far and away exceed new construction.
And in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Manhattan Beach, Pacific Palisades and other communities where the purchase prices of houses have been sharply escalating, the increase in additions is even more pronounced.
The reasons cited for the increases are many. Because real estate taxes are geared to sale prices, people are moving less, especially if they bought a house in the pre-Proposition 13 era. Instead of spending money moving up to one's dream house, and paying more taxes, more people instead are opting to remodel.
People also are realizing that additions add substantially more to the value of a house than whatever the actual construction might cost, since the land, usually the most expensive item in the building process, already is paid for. "That's why it tends to be less expensive to build than to buy," said architect Richard Giesbret, who is involved in a variety of additions for the design firm of Benton/Park/Candreva of Santa Monica. "Many existing homes tend to be underbuilt and undervalued."
Giesbret said this fact is emphasized by the recent surge of developers buying houses in select residential neighborhoods, simply to tear them down and build new houses to whatever maximums the local zoning will allow.
In addition to economic reasons to build additions, there also are emotional ones. Though their houses may no longer suit them, many people like where they live, be it for shopping, social life or schools. So instead of moving, they expand their well-located but inadequate house.
"An addition also is a way for a family to get what they want," said Rebecca Binder, whose residential designs have won various architectural awards. "People shop, shop and shop, but anything they find usually needs remodeling. That's what happened with the Bernstein family in the Valley that turned to me to add on to their existing house." The design was honored last year by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
But an addition is harder to design than a new house, according to those who have worked with homeowners. "It is a real puzzle trying to integrate the style and function, and often the structure, too," said Harry Bornstein, who after 30 years of designing and building commercial and residential projects, now finds himself working exclusively on additions.
"You want the addition to be honest and contemporary, yet acknowledge its roots in, and be sympathetic to, the original building while also fitting into the context of the surrounding neighborhood," said Giesbret.
As an example, Giesbret cites his design of an addition to and remodel of 409 20th St. in Santa Monica, where the details of the original Spanish-styled house were simplified and incorporated into the addition.