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Built with wild abandon

The lot was a killer: Laurel Canyon traffic out front, a daunting hillside in back. But Corrine Glass took a chance anyway -- and got a house that quiets the urban din and embraces its natural side.

January 11, 2007|Craig Nakano | Times Staff Writer

WHEN a family friend first suggested to Corrine Glass that she buy the Studio City lot, her response wasn't "no."

"I looked at him," Glass recalls, "and said, 'You're absolutely out of your mind.' " The parcel had stood vacant for decades, declared unbuildable by previous would-be buyers. Its steep slope made construction an impractical and expensive proposition. A creek ran though the feral landscape.

Then there was the traffic. Stand along this stretch of Laurel Canyon Boulevard, and one hears the soundtrack of a city: the rattle of delivery trucks and the hip-hop bass thumping from SUVs, the staccato squeal of bad brakes and the throttle of motorcycles zigzagging through the morning commute. Horns honk. Sirens wail.

Glass had never built a home before -- or bought one, for that matter -- which perhaps is why she could ponder the daunting hillside, the creek and the estimated 30,000 cars that the city says pass by every day, then go back to the family friend with her answer: sold.

Three years and more than a few panic attacks later, Glass has a finished house that is a realm of peace and quiet. Dual-pane argon windows and beefed up insulation reduce the timbre of traffic, and from her minimalist, open-plan kitchen, dining area and living room, she can admire her other former nemeses, the wooded hill and burbling creek, now defining features of the home. While the city rushes by in front, wilderness beckons from behind.

In some ways, the distinctly modern design represents the future for a region whose patches of vacant land are becoming ever-more scarce and for residents who can afford to live in the metropolitan core. As Southern California grows more dense and as architects and urban planners are forced to redefine what's "livable," this house stands as an unlikely success: a measure of calm and solitude in an increasingly frenetic and crowded city.

Perhaps no one is more pleased than Glass, who wakes up each morning in a master bedroom cantilevered into the treetops, a perch from which she can watch resident hawks, coyotes, a deer and her fawn.

"You can stand pressed up against the window, and it feels like you're in a treehouse," she says. "I can watch it for hours. It's just so very peaceful."

TO understand just how much Glass has endured to reach this point, one must rewind to fall 2003 and a post-Yom Kippur gathering where Glass, a lawyer, was approached by a family friend.

He had a vacant lot that had been a thorn in his side, he said. A neighbor had agreed to buy the land but backed out of the deal. The friend wanted to know: Legally, what can I do?

Not much, she said, to which he responded: "You're young. Why don't you build on it?"

Glass, who was 27 and renting in Santa Monica at the time, rebuffed the suggestion, but over the next couple of weeks, the offer -- $35,000 and the land was hers -- seemed too good to pass. Two-bedroom condos in her neighborhood were selling for $800,000. Could building a home on the lot be any worse?

"Everybody thought I was out of my mind," says Glass, who entered an option-to-purchase agreement that allowed her to back out of the sale if construction proved to be impossible or too expensive. "I was taken by how lush the lot was. It was covered with bushes and trees, and it had this nature feel to it."

She called in architect Aaron Neubert, whose aesthetic was distinctly modern with Japanese influences, precisely what Glass wanted. With promising results from geologists' soil tests and encouragement from Neubert and his collaborator on the project, architect Mike Jacobs, Glass signed the final papers.

"After I bought the lot," she says, "my dad called every day for two weeks saying he was having nightmares about me doing this."

Indeed, it wasn't long before she had nightmares of her own.

FROM the outset, budget was a priority. Glass had taken on $160,000 in debt putting herself through law school, and though she had some cash set aside, she was adamant that the design -- four bedrooms and three bathrooms in about 3,000 square feet -- be economical. Though she declined to reveal exact construction costs, similar architect-built homes on comparable parcels in L.A. typically cost $675,000 to $900,000 to construct, excluding furnishings and decor.

While Neubert and Jacobs devised a plan for a modern house nestled at the rear of the lot, high on the hillside with a view of the valley, concrete and steel prices continued to rise. By the time contractors were called in for bids, Glass' hillside retaining walls were estimated at $250,000.

"I think the estimate for the foundation alone was more than Corrine's entire construction budget," Neubert says.

If necessity prompts inspiration, then the architects proved truly inspired. They came back with their Plan B: a two-story stucco box set on the down slope right next to Laurel Canyon, shielding its occupants from traffic and orienting all attention toward the landscape in back.

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