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Double visionaries

The duplex is back, and this time the look is sleek, smart and unequivocally modern. But these homes showcase more than contemporary style. They reflect the changing way some Southern Californians live.

June 21, 2007|Morris Newman and Dale Kutzera | Special to The Times

JUDY PREMINGER planned on renting her new duplex, not living in it. To understand why she changed her mind, just stroll along her street in the Sawtelle district of West Los Angeles.

Preminger's home rises like some minimalist ark, its southern wall jutting out like a brawny prow. Recycled redwood forms a spare, organic facade, an Asian-inspired counterpoint to the Japanese nurseries and restaurants nearby. If it were not for twin entrances behind the garden gates, the duplex could pass for an intriguing single-family residence, which is precisely the point.

Distinctive in appearance and designed with thoughtful features that would make the average house dweller jealous, the not-so-humble duplex is back after a prolonged absence from L.A.'s architectural scene. Preminger's home and others like it are rising across the city with a level of ambition rarely seen since the 1920s and '30s, when graceful Spanish and Mediterranean Revival duplexes rose alongside houses in several pockets of town, most notably the tree-lined boulevards near Highland Avenue and 3rd Street.

These classic residences remain fashionable addresses, with barrel ceilings and hardwood floors, wrought iron and leaded glass, arched doorways and hand-crafted built-ins. By contrast, some new duplexes are wholeheartedly modern visions, sleek assemblages of polished concrete, stainless steel and glass tile that rise above the pedestrian style and sensibility that has long defined rental properties here.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 23, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Duplexes: An article on modern duplexes in Thursday's Home section misspelled the name of designer Amit Apel as Amit Patel.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 28, 2007 Home Edition Home Part F Page 9 Features Desk 0 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Duplexes: A June 21 article on modern duplexes misspelled the name of Amit Apel as Amit Patel.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 30, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Duplexes: In the Home section, a June 21 article on duplexes and a June 28 photo caption with a letter about the article said a property at the corner of Harper and Waring avenues was in West Hollywood. The property is in Los Angeles, a block south of West Hollywood city limits.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 05, 2007 Home Edition Home Part F Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Duplexes: A June 21 article on duplexes and a June 28 photo caption with a letter about the article said a property at the corner of Harper and Waring avenues is in West Hollywood. The property is in Los Angeles, a block south of West Hollywood city limits.

What makes these new duplexes so interesting is not only their modern aesthetic and practical solutions for life with shared walls, but also their owners' motivations. After all, why would anyone forgo a traditional house in favor of a space they have to share?

Real estate agent Stacy Babbitt, who specializes in dual-unit properties, says 95% of her buyers are owner-occupants. Many are baby boomers intending to live in one unit and provide separate housing for an adult child or another relative in the second.

"A duplex is a great alternative to the single-family home," Babbitt says, adding that rental income from the second unit can allow some owners to live in a neighborhood they wouldn't otherwise be able to afford.

With real estate prices still rising in many desirable ZIP Codes, demographic shifts fueling interest in dual-unit properties and the mayor calling for creative solutions to L.A.'s housing shortage, it's no surprise the duplex is rising once again. An accurate count of duplexes (excluding mother-in-law units) is difficult to discern, but the potential for more multifamily housing in this region is clear.

According to U.S. Census statistics on population density from 2000, the most recent year for which statistics are available, Los Angeles has 2,852 units of housing per square mile. That may sound adequate until you look at our neighbor to the north. In San Francisco, the figure is 7,421. In this context, well-designed duplexes suddenly look less like a throwback to the past and more like a potential solution for the future.

MATHEW Mitchell does not call himself a pioneer, but his newly finished duplex near downtown L.A. says otherwise. Standing amid older frame houses on the hilly streets near the Belmont High School construction site, the minimalist tower sports views of the city skyline and an unconventional floor plan that's a response to the narrow, steep lot.

Inspired partly by the walk-up town houses of San Francisco, architectural designer Tim Campbell crafted the duplex as back-to-back units, each three stories tall with about 500 square feet of living space on every floor. Two bedrooms and a bathroom sit at street level, the kitchen and living areas are on the second floor and the master bedroom and bath are on the third.

Life in a three-story home means a lot of time spent going up and down stairs, but Mitchell says the vertical layout works for him, particularly when he has guests.

"Different parts of the house seem more separate from each other, so those places seem more like destinations," he says.

The layout supports a "very European or very San Francisco way of life, in which parents and children may live on separate floors," Campbell says. "Then everybody meets on the second floor, which then becomes the public area of the building."

To make the duplex's snug rooms seem more spacious, the designer raised the ceiling to 10 feet and called for glass on at least two sides of every room, "so that light itself becomes a design feature," Campbell says. In placing the windows, he followed the traditional Japanese principle of borrowing a view -- making the room feel larger by guiding the eye to an attractive sight outside.

What is most appealing to Campbell is the big picture: the prospect of achieving a higher population density on what is essentially a single-family-sized lot.

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