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The not-so-humble garage

Artist's studio, meditation hall, even birthing room -- a remodeled garage is the latest in urban retreats. Compared with the house, it's 'a psychologically different space,' says one devotee.

September 16, 2004|Alexandria Abramian-Mott | Special to The Times

After 10 days of silent meditation at a Tibetan monastery in India, Sanni Diesner returned home determined to turn her detached two-car garage into something more tranquil than a storage bin. What had been a toolshed and an atelier for her custom wedding dress business became a Zen-like space, a feel-good hub for weekly meditation meetings with friends.

When she went into labor in April, Diesner retreated from her 800-square-foot house to the Marina del Rey garage that became her meditation hall, complete with linen pillows on the floor and the sound of trickling water from a nearby koi pond. A doula, friends and family gathered around a kiddie pool as she delivered her son in the space she says is "loaded with good energy."

Birthing a baby in a garage? Call it creativity born of a sky-high housing marking that is forcing homeowners to reach beyond a house's traditional boundaries to make every square foot count. And while few may consider a converted two-car the ultimate delivery room -- regardless of how good that energy may be -- more and more homeowners are backing their cars out of the garage and using the space to park hobbies, offices and almost anything that will fit in a 20-by-20-foot space.

"People want more breadth of utility for their homes," says Carole Schiffer, a Coldwell Banker Realtor. "Instead of going to the movies or the gym, they're converting garages into media rooms and gyms. That's why we see people putting in wine cellars and all these things that weren't the hot buttons a few years ago."

When housing becomes less affordable, garage conversions become a substitute for buying a bigger house, says Ben Bartolotto, research director of the Construction Industry Research Board in Southern California. "We're seeing a growing percentage toward more expensive conversions for everything from dens to recreation rooms to master bedrooms and gyms," he adds.

John Stein was looking for a place to do everything from perfecting his ping-pong game to staging theater productions and putting up houseguests when he demolished his dilapidated garage and built a two-story garage and guesthouse in its place. He also was looking for a chance to experiment with design when he hired Richard Aldriedge, a local architect whose work he admired.

"The instructions I gave Richard were just to make a flexible multiuse space over the garage and to make it beautiful," says Stein, an investment advisor who considers the building "a jewel in the crown on the Venice oceanfront."

The two-story space toys with angle, composition and materials in a playful way that Stein says "always attracts comments." Windows capture light and vistas -- one wraps around a corner to provide almost dead-on ocean views. There's the added benefit of having an architecturally significant garage conversion that could enhance the property's value if Aldriedge's career enters that pantheon of big-name architects.

Done correctly, a garage conversion doesn't need a fancy architect's name attached to increase property value, but it doesn't hurt, Schiffer says. Any well-executed project done to code that turns the garage into livable space can increase property values by up to 10%, she adds.

Peter Dunham and Peter Kopelson's two-story garage may be more of an architectural curiosity than architecturally significant. A previous owner framed two garages -- one built in 1925, another added to it in 1939 -- in weather-beaten wood siding from an Iowa barn. Forget that it looks like a visiting East Coast relative next to the Mediterranean-style main house. When Dunham and Kopelson first saw it, with holes in the walls and no insulation, it was all they needed to make an offer on the West Hollywood property in 2001.

"This was the selling point," says Dunham, a British-born interior decorator, sitting in what is now a sisal-floored, antique-filled series of rooms with recessed lighting and French doors that look onto sycamore trees and a recently installed swimming pool. The main house, at 1,600 square feet before they added a master bedroom, wasn't that small, but it wasn't big enough for the couple to have a home office, music room and lodgings for frequent guests. Finishing the 1,200 square feet of garage space solved the problem.

Upstairs, Dunham installed offices where he has ample room to work with three assistants and house shelves full of fabric swatches stored in plastic bins for his design business. "I still leave the house to come to work and have a separate phone line for the office," says Dunham, "but now I don't have to deal with a commute that had become relentless."

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