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SUNDAY BRUNCH | designing L.A.

Steel Life


"What we wanted was a very light box that feels bigger than it is."

Architect Sarah Graham was standing on the terrace of the graceful indoor-outdoor house she and her architect husband, Mark Angelil, finished in 1993.

Anchored on a steep hillside of Beachwood Canyon, the 1,700-square-foot house combines a wood frame embedded with steel columns and a corrugated steel cantilevered "floating roof" that allows afternoon sun to flood the house with light.

"We were working with inexpensive materials, and we welcomed steel into the construction and detail," said Graham.

Her visitors had come to see the steel.

They were journalists participating in the first-ever Steel Home Media Tour, a workshop focusing on the potential of steel as a residential building material.

The recent tour was sponsored by the Steel Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based network of 150 steel companies. Hoping to convince architects, designers and--most of all--consumers that a steel house can be just as desirable as a wooden one, the alliance staged the media tour in Los Angeles recently to present the evidence.

Reporters from shelter magazines and trade journals were invited for a two-day briefing on the versatility of steel not only for framing, but also as a decorative material.

"Since California drives architectural trends, we wanted to start here," said Leslie Nauser, alliance spokeswoman. "Steel has long been used in industrial constructions, but now we're pushing the advantages for the residential consumer."

Mark Stephenson distributed press kits loaded with facts favorable to steel: It resists fires, thwarts termites and can be designed to withstand most earthquakes. The overall 66% recycling rate of steel products gives it an environmental pedigree. Another environmental advantage is that steel does not require pesticides or other wood-treating chemicals so it can contribute to better indoor air quality than traditional home materials.

For the opening of the workshop, Los Angeles architect Pierre Koenig zipped through a slide presentation history of steel construction. Koenig, who has long used steel frame structure to generate his own architectural style, participated in the historic Case Study House program, which was sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine after World War II to develop innovative but affordable housing in Southern California.

"Steel is particularly good for all the hillsides we have here," he said. To dramatize, the tour's first stop was Koenig's Case Study House No. 22, a modernist glass and steel house built in the 1950s and perched in the Hollywood Hills.

Another testament to durability was the 1949 steel-framed house built in Pacific Palisades by Charles and Ray Eames, the husband-and-wife modernist designer team who pioneered innovative use of building materials.

And for a switch from the modernistic, the group visited an Altadena subdivision by Brookfield Development, where new homes with steel frames are designed in several models that are more traditional.

Although many people dismiss steel as a harsh aesthetic, it can be quite beautiful, as Graham and Angelil's house was chosen to demonstrate for the tour.

"I love the clean detailing," said Graham, who incorporated steel as a finish throughout the houseand pointed out the delicacy of her guard-rail cables and the "weathered" quality of the ceiling's galvanized steel beams.

"I would argue, at the end of the 20th century, why not use the technology we have for our houses?" she said.

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