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Reinventing the front porch in Santa Monica

A John Friedman-Alice Kimm house breaks free of convention, replacing a private backyard with a design oriented to the neighborhood.

February 28, 2009|Paul Young

One would be hard-pressed to find anything traditional about Matt and Erin King's new house in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Santa Monica, just north of Venice Beach. Its dynamic design stands out so much from its suburban neighbors that local kids have dubbed it the "James Bond house."

But more significant than the home's modern looks is the way it greets the street. Architects John Friedman and Alice Kimm placed the four-bedroom, four-bath house toward the back of the lot, not only creating a large yard in front but also exposing the heart of the L-shaped home to the neighborhood. "That really confuses people," Erin says. "People come over and ask, 'Why did your architects take away your backyard?' " For the Kings, the design takes little away. Rather, it gives them a front porch -- a patio, actually, that functions as a modern interpretation of the porch common in traditional homes, particularly in the South, and in the Arts & Crafts bungalows here in the early 1900s.

As Erin points out, front porches were often used to escape the heat when homes didn't have air-conditioning, and in the process, they inspired more interaction between homeowners and passersby.

"What we have is similar in that friends and neighbors will call out to us from the sidewalk," Erin says. "So we're interacting with the neighborhood all the time."

Despite all that openness, the home's interior feels serene and comfortable. Walk around the fireplace and custom cabinetry forming a large, asymmetrical island in the main living area, and the space seems to expand in every direction -- an effect magnified by the 10-foot ceiling, broad glass doors opening to the patio and the slight downhill grade, which creates dynamic views.

"One thing that we like," architect Friedman says, "is when you can be in a room, look out, and see another part of the same building that you're in."

Erin King, a landscape designer, and husband Matt, director of the Santa Monica-based nonprofit Heal the Bay, had lived in Spanish-style homes in Santa Monica and Brentwood. But Erin says her husband, who is 6-foot-6, found them to be claustrophobic.

"Matt always said that he wanted to build a modernist home one day," she says. "He wanted something that he belonged in."

The couple bought and tore down a two-bedroom house formerly owned by Joe Francis, producer of the "Girls Gone Wild" videos, then began working with Friedman and Kimm on a budget of $1.5 million. Together they went through various plans for the 11,000-square-foot lot, finally settling on a design that rejected convention and placed the 4,300-square-foot house toward the back.

"We really liked the idea of being up at tree level and taking advantage of the views," Erin says, "which is rare in this area."

Beyond the loft-like living and kitchen area is the dining room, which opens to the front patio as well as a more private, Asian-inspired garden behind the house. It gives the Kings a quieter outdoor space that they like to use for breakfast or barbecues.

Next to the dining room, at the front of the house, is a double-insulated TV room that gives sons Patrick, 14, and James, 11, a space to hang out in. It opens up to the front lawn, which the boys use as a soccer field and which is the only landscaping that isn't drought-resistant. (Erin plans to replant it once the boys no longer use it.)

The home accommodates the parents just as well, including Erin's need for an office. In developing plans for other creative clients, Friedman says he learned that home offices work best near the front door. "You create layers of privacy going from the street, to the porch, to the greeting area and then the office," he says.

"The owners don't have to bring people into the rest of the house if they don't want to."

For Matt, who tends to be the cook of the house, kitchen counters were raised to accommodate his height, and a temperature-controlled cellar went in under the stairwell for his collection of wines.

The second floor has a generous wooden deck that both separates and connects the master bedroom with the two kids' rooms. From there, Matt can look out across the Los Angeles basin to determine surf conditions nearby. For the boys, large horizontal windows in their rooms frame the air traffic coming in and out of LAX.

Other touches, some conceived by John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects associate Bob McFadden, are subtle. The green and white pattern on two exterior panels of the house are designed to mimic the dappled light coming through trees, with darker tones giving way to lighter ones. Skylights have been placed throughout the home, always at the edge of a wall so that bounced light carries through the space.

The architects also took most of the windows up to the ceiling, which creates the impression that the rooms are taller. Most of the doors employ frosted glass, which transmits natural light, preserves privacy and "gives you the impression of a more inviting environment," Friedman says.

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