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INNER LIFE

Lightly on the land

This solar-powered house is no soulless metal box. It has an organic beauty, an environmentally smart design -- and a $30-a-month electric bill.

October 02, 2003|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

They were two guys with an open checkbook, house-hunting in a city full of "for sale" signs. They saw big houses, beautiful houses, brilliantly located houses -- more than 200 in the course of a year -- but not one that their consciences would let them live in. So architect Carter Bravmann and real estate investor Jack Koll built their own.

The environmentally sound, energy-efficient result is a monument to what Bravmann calls their shared desire "to preserve nature and conserve Earth's limited resources." And, not so incidentally, to seriously cut down on utility costs. The energy tab for their 3,000-square-foot, two-story house averages $30 per month.

The West Hollywood house has walls and windows of dual-pane glass, 32 75-watt solar panels on its steel roof, a "passive" air-conditioning system that allows hot air to flow diagonally up and out from the living room floor to the upstairs ceiling through banks of strategically placed small windows. And the most energy-efficient appliances available in the world.

"We keep wondering, why doesn't everybody build like this, why do they all just ignore it?" Bravmann asks.

Together for seven years, the couple don't just share ideals; they share an aesthetic. Their contemporary home of glass and steel exudes the comfort and warmth of a Craftsman cottage, with its natural textures and artisan touches. "A lot of people think modern architecture has to be cold," Bravmann says. "It doesn't. By incorporating woods and a comfortably human scale, it can be intimate and inviting." Floors are of wide-plank walnut, a rich wood whose natural color is a deep, burnished brown that needs no stain. It is so resilient, says Koll, that even the two family cats (Vanity Fair and GQ) haven't been able to scratch it.

Completed a year ago, the modernist rectangle is terraced into a hillside in a neighborhood of homes built in the 1920s but it in no way looks out of place (Frank Lloyd Wright's 1923 Storer house is four doors away.) Its exterior of glass and smooth, earth-tone stucco blends into the hill and seems to meld with the ancient oak and pine trees. Koll and Bravmann chose the site because it feels remote and serene, with wide-angle city views and abundant greenery. But it is also within easy walking distance of everything they need on a daily basis. Only one-third of a mile above Sunset Boulevard, they can walk the short, steep, winding road to markets, films, restaurants.

"We refuse to be car-dependent," says Koll, 37, "and we lead a pretty active lifestyle." He bikes, hikes, swims, skis. Bravmann, 40, cycles 60 miles into the Santa Monica Mountains almost every morning before he sits down to work. When they do drive, it's usually in a zippy Honda Insight that gets 65 miles per gallon. (Their other car is a Volvo.)

Bravmann, who specializes in designing single-family residences, puts building dollars into quality rather than quantity. "Most people want everything as big as they can possibly get" -- even if it's unnecessary or counterproductive. For himself and his partner, he designed something smaller than he might have. (The first floor is 1,900 square feet, the upstairs, 1,100). Three spacious bedrooms, 3 1/2baths and two large home offices sit easily in that space, and look larger than they are because of Bravmann's finesse with proportion, spatial and construction details.

All the main rooms have glass walls that face panoramic city views. Even the corners, where front and side walls intersect, are of glass -- an engineering feat that requires special framing, but has the effect of making them disappear, so that views are truly wide-angle. "If you have something worth looking at, you should be able to see it," Bravmann says.

Bravmann's open floor plan for the living area (900 square feet) is an elongated flow of space that encompasses kitchen, dining and living rooms. "What's the point of building vast rooms that no one's going to use? Many houses have family rooms and formal living rooms, which they rarely make use of. We have one room that is a combined family-living room." (Its focal point is a synthetic stone fireplace with a plasma TV screen recessed into the stone above the hearth. "They say TV is modern America's equivalent of the fireplace, so we figured we'd combine the two.")

He and Koll also opted for a single, spacious dining area between living room and kitchen, where they eat at a huge oak table whether alone or with friends. "What we did is eliminate the duplication. We have three spaces for living and dining, instead of five."

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