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ARCHITECTURE

Looking beyond green

Eco-friendly houses used to be clumsy, idiosyncratic and all about the message, but architects are discovering stylish approaches to sustainable designs. For one Santa Monica couple, home is more than just a soapbox.

March 29, 2007|Morris Newman | Special to The Times

BOB BEITCHER says he and his wife, Carol, want their newly built home in Santa Monica to be a showcase of sustainable practices "without being granola-y, if you know what I mean."

Their house off San Vicente Boulevard has been carefully designed by architect Warren Wagner to optimize solar energy and the use of recycled and renewable materials. Yet the modernist dwelling seems more about the panache of architectural possibilities than the virtuousness of green design.

Seen from the busy boulevard, the facade is energetic yet understated, as if it had power in reserve. The hip-looking exterior is covered in Western red cedar, stucco-covered block and unfinished sheet metal. The upward-tilting roof seems to float above ribbon-like windows at the ceiling line, without external supports.

A closer look, however, reveals that the house is sustainable down to its foundation. A two-story opening in the center acts as a thermal chimney, pulling the hot air out of the house while drawing in cool air, all through an automated skylight. The walls are insulated with recycled denim, made from the remnants from a blue-jeans factory. Twelve photovoltaic panels supply 85% of the home's power needs, while 10 solar thermal panels supply the house with hot water and radiant heat for the floors and heat the swimming pool.

"The primary thing is that the house has an architecturally interesting design, and the punch line is that it's got all these sustainable design features," Bob Beitcher says.

His interest in green design was sparked a decade ago when a house designed by Wagner arose in his neighborhood. "I was dragging everyone over there to see it," he recalls.

When the family decided to build a new house, sustainability seemed preordained. "It never occurred to us to do it any other way," says Carol, whose four children include a vegan chef. Their children also "had plenty of input" on the design of the house, she adds.

The Beitcher house is the latest in a series of recent Westside houses -- Pugh + Scarpa's Solar Umbrella house, also in Venice; Ray Kappe's prefab house in Ocean Park; and the Ehrlich house in Santa Monica by John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects -- that have excited interest for their design and sustainable features.

THE combination of architecture and environmentalism is the credo of Wagner, who founded W3 Architects in Venice in 1993 to "demonstrate the integration of solar and sustainable technologies into the highest level of architecture." He earlier earned his graduate architecture degree at UCLA and worked for several years with passivesolar-design pioneer Edward Mazria in Santa Fe, N.M.

Wagner also is a modernist who counts R.M. Schindler, the Viennese-born architect who created many boldly geometric homes in the hillsides and canyons of Los Angeles, among his artistic heroes. He calls his own style "warm Modernism."

"Architecture is about one form doing several things," he says.

The shape and siting of the Beitchers' house on a corner lot is a case in point.

Rather than position the house in the center of the lot, as most architects do, Wagner pushed the house north, almost to the sidewalk on San Vicente, to maximize the size of a south-facing courtyard and to capture as much sunlight as possible.

This long-and-narrow configuration also fits the Beitchers. An open plan makes the living room, kitchen and dining room -- all furnished in comfortable contemporary furniture by interior architect Tracey Loeb -- into a single, continuous space.

The sliding-glass doors open onto a courtyard that unifies the garden and pool with the living areas. The result is a communal setting for the close family. The Beitchers have two teenagers living at home and two adult children.

As if to make a witty commentary on the close connection between the living room and the courtyard, Wagner located the fireplace outdoors, where it takes the form of a decorative fire pit, with a bed of black sand. The surrounding xeriscape was designed by Sasha Tarnopolsky of Dry Design.

The shape of the house also provides privacy: The rear of the house has a separate entrance that leads to a second-floor breezeway that opens into a guest room, which the Beitchers call "the crash pad," available to their adult kids on visits. The rear entrance allows visitors to enter the house at all hours of the night without disturbing the rest of the family.

The 4,000-square-foot, four-bedroom house is large enough for Carol to have a separate room for quilting. Located on the shorter side of the L-shaped floor plan, this rooms allows Carol, a confessed "clutterbug," to work in her own space. The west-facing wall gives her a full view of the courtyard and the living room. "You can be aware of all the activity that is going on in the house," she says.

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