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A challenge, loud and clear

The lot was wedged between a freeway and an airport -- one of the noisiest sites in the city -- but Lloyd Russell built his house anyway. Now, his acoustically savvy design is triggering new talk about what's possible in Southern California.

November 09, 2006|David Hay | Special to The Times

San Diego — WHEN architect Lloyd Russell decided to build his house here, he was determined to embrace the drama of downtown. Stand on the mezzanine of his daring new structure today, and you see not only the skyline of a growing city, but also a stream of cars speeding along Interstate 5 and roaring jets touching down at the international airport.

"When planes go by, it's the coolest thing," Russell says, raising his voice as a Southwest 737 passes just a few hundred feet overhead.

Critics may accuse this self-described "throwback Modernist" of ignoring reality, of being an impractical dreamer trying to craft a livable space from a "billboard lot" wedged between the freeway and Lindbergh Field. But then again, this three-story, live-work edifice was designed to defy conventional wisdom.

Dubbed R3, the structure attempts to tame the cacophony of urban living in the most extreme of environments -- what one sound engineer declared "the noisiest site in San Diego." If warmly embraced, it may contribute to a re-examination of what urban planners, residential designers and the public consider to be a habitable site. "So much development in California is going to the edges -- away from the cities," says Russell, 39. "This is about being at the intersection of all things quintessentially urban."

AS metropolitan areas grow more dense, new solutions to urban land use are critical. One of the biggest obstacles to developing many sites is noise, particularly the rumble of traffic.

"Although cars are quieter than ever before, the latest figures available show that the number of vehicles on the road continues to increase at over 2% a year," says Bruce Davy, a principal of Davy & Associates, an acoustical engineering firm in Manhattan Beach.

For Russell, buying land right next to Interstate 5 didn't start as an attempt to reinvent urban living, but rather as a form of economy. He and his wife, Ame Parsley, were looking to build on a cheap lot. In Southern California, that often means a steep hillside.

But Russell, who has lived in downtown San Diego for more than 10 years, knew that the freeway's construction disrupted the urban grid. Odd parcels of land had to exist along the corridor. Cheap parcels.

One day he came upon a triangular lot where "people used to park their broken-down cars underneath the billboard." It was tight: 120 feet by 116 feet by 28 feet. But the Merrimac and Essex apartment complexes, which Russell had designed with Ted Smith, taught Russell how to build right up to the sidewalk and make use of every inch of land.

"What was most attractive was its triangular shape," he said. "This would be my version of the Flatiron Building." The price: $50,000.

In the design phase, Russell and Parsley's anxiety about noise pollution only increased when sound engineers descended on the lot.

According to their report, the planes overhead would ratchet the noise to 78 decibels on the second floor, envisioned as the main living area. That's similar to what one would hear while standing about 35 yards from a freight train and more than 70% higher than the standard for residential buildings set by the state, Russell says.

The runway at San Diego International Airport is only one-third of a mile away, and incoming planes fly as low as 250 feet overhead. (When a crane arrived at Russell's construction site, airport officials quickly informed him that the equipment violated Federal Aviation Administration-regulated air space.)

To temper the aural onslaught, Russell designed R3 (so named because it's his third building in San Diego) to address the intensity and direction of sound waves. Among the simplest strategies: installing double-glazed windows.

Also critical was the placement of the glass, the weakest link in any soundproofing plan. On the wall facing east, looking toward the freeway, the best solution for noise reduction would have been no windows at all. Russell compromised, putting a large picture window away from the source of the noise. The glass on the west side, facing the airport, was deliberately kept narrow.

To allow windows to be kept shut for long periods in every section of the house, Russell installed four separate air-conditioning and heating systems. An overhang on the west-facing roof further reduces noise from low-flying planes, deflecting sound waves before they hit the glass below.

The crenulations in the exterior concrete walls break up the clamor of traffic on India Street. On the south side, closest to the flight path, he erected two 30-foot high walls, which Russell says also would serve as a bulwark in the event of a plane crash.

Together, these strategies diffuse so much of the traffic noise that the home is surprisingly quiet inside. Only the roar of landing aircraft interferes with conversation, though at its busiest, planes land every five minutes.

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