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Against all elements

Architect Russell Johnson set out to build a house that could withstand fires, earthquakes and even termites. And in the process, he created a home with livability and style.

November 13, 2003|Tina Daunt | Times Staff Writer

Termites by the thousands were chewing through the frame of architect Russell K. Johnson's Santa Monica condominium. Even a hefty dose of pesticide couldn't kill the destructive insects. "They just kept eating away," he said. Frustrated, he decided to do what many might consider impossible: build a stylish, modern home immune to the damaging effects of pests and the elements, a place tough enough to withstand fires and earthquakes.

Johnson, 55, considered an array of alternative building materials, searching for permanence in a place where nature and society often render architecture disposable. "There had to be a better material than wood," he said. "I looked into straw bales, rammed earth, rubber tires, you name it." None of those made sense.

Finally, while researching his problem on the Internet, he stumbled upon a material that seemed to meet his goal: 12-inch-thick building blocks made of recycled Styrofoam mixed with cement. The system, called Rastra, had been invented in 1972 by a mechanical engineer in Austria. Although builders were using the large bricks extensively in Arizona and New Mexico to replicate thick adobe walls, no one had used Rastra to build a house in Los Angeles. Johnson decided to be the first.

Three years later, Johnson and his wife, Maryann Fraser, reside on the Westside in a home that they believe is impervious to almost any malady to befall a house, especially fire. "There is no wood in the construction of the house," Johnson said. "There's nothing to burn."

With tough materials and a simple design, Johnson was determined to create a structure that will stand the test of time.

"In a typical house nowadays, there are 20 different sizes of wood, 10 different kinds of nails and screws," Johnson said. "With Rastra, you use five or six materials.... In Europe, homes are built to last centuries instead of 50 to 80 years, like they are here. That was one of our basic concepts here: Build a home that will survive 500 years."

One thing is certain: No termite will ever make a meal of these walls.

The house, located in Westside Village near Overland Avenue, is the architectural equivalent of a Hummer. It's a solid, boxy-looking place that stands out yet somehow fits into its neighborhood of 1940s single-family homes. Inside, it's spacious, with high ceilings and a wall of double-glazed windows that frame a backyard shaded by mature poplar trees.

Everything about this place reflects Johnson's sensibilities. He's a practical man who grew up on a farm in Minnesota, learning how to use every tool in his father's shed. He fixed tractors, built barns and dabbled with contemporary art, creating sculptures out of metal scraps. Trying to meld his artistic side with a love of building things, he headed off to study architecture at the University of Minnesota. After graduation, he apprenticed as a cabinetmaker.

"I always believed in the European concept that says you should work in the trades for a while to learn things for yourself," he said. Looking for a warmer climate, Johnson made his way to Los Angeles in 1979. He earned a reputation as a top kitchen architect and designer, working for a celebrity clientele that included movie producer Joel Silver and chef Wolfgang Puck.

Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, the first U.S. architect to blend the functionality of buildings, interiors and furniture into a single concept, Johnson wanted to design and build his own home. He also admired R.M. Schindler's work, but Johnson found it troubling that some of the architect's structures were badly weather-beaten. "Schindler had done a lot of work on the outside of his buildings with wood. Some of that is all rotted away and termite-eaten. I thought, 'Something needs to change here.' "

After his own termite debacle at the Santa Monica condominium, Johnson decided to act. He learned about Rastra on a Web site dedicated to environmental news. Determined to find out more, he drove to Redlands and Palm Springs to look at several houses built from the material. Next, he combed through test data and case studies.

"There was testing done at UC Irvine that showed that Rastra is about seven times stronger than a wood-framed wall," he said. Because it's tied more securely to the foundation, Johnson believes it will survive earthquakes better than conventional homes. The sturdy blocks also provided enough insulation to keep the house warm in winter and cool in summer. Although building costs would be about 10% than they would with conventional materials, Johnson decided to move forward. "It just seemed like the right answer."

Johnson and Fraser went looking for a lot to build their dream home. They considered buying an old house and tearing it down, but that seemed impractical. "Why spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on something that is just going to be bulldozed?" he said.

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