Saturday, October 22, 2016

Echo Park architect’s new take on the tree house

A new house now under construction in the Elysian Heights section of Echo Park appears to be taking extra steps to be eco-friendly.  Located on a steep and wooded hillside near Park Drive and Ewing Street, the home is not only surrounded by large trees but has a towering pine growing through a corner of the structure.

The house, which appears to float above the hillside, is the work of Echo Park architect Simon Storey, whose home, a narrow, jet-black building set atop a one-car garage, attracted attention when it was built at the southern end of Fairbanks Place.  The House in Trees, as the project is known, is describedd in Storey’s website:

The location on the hillside was chosen to minimise the disruption to the native vegetation – it fits between 3 large mature trees on three sides.The house ‘floats’ over the hillside which further reduces it’s footprint on the ground – only 50% of the total floor space is in contact with the earth. The rest of the house is cantilevered out over the downsloping lot.

While the description says the house is located  between the trees, the photo above shows at least one big pine tree piercing a corner room of the house. A website called House In The Trees includes photos of the home’s metal frame being built around the trunk. What happens if that tree keeps growing or sways in the wind?  Will the interior take its cues from the Bigfoot Lodge?  The Eastsider is seeking details.

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  1. the homeowners couldn’t be a nicer couple! Good luck with the house and welcome to elysian heights!

  2. “The house ‘floats’ over the hillside -” what happened to our collective imagination as architects and clients that made this idea of proping up a flat suburban house plan on a bulky pier take the place of designing an interesting section that takes advantage of the oportunity that a hillside presents to move up and down and engage the topography?

    • huh?????????????????????????????????????

      • Ha. SCI-arc humor.

        • i think sci-arc teaches this stuff, actually. This is just another dwell-level design that lowers the bar for architecture. Sad waste of a beautiful site to put a boring flat box on top of it and so cynical to claim it is architecture because it “floats” over it. The poor owners might as well live in the flats.

    • There are a few reasons for that. It’s a lot cheaper. I mean a lot. All you have to do is pour abunch of piles and grade beams. If you want to engage the topography, you will have to build a bunch of big retaining walls. On a steep site, retaining walls will cost about $150/sqft. If you want to create occupiable space on a steep slope, you’ll need some more retaining walls. But not too many, the city will only allow 2 that aren’t part of the structure of the house and they can’t be over 10′ tall. Well you could build one that is 12′ but then you are allowed only one. On say a 1:1 slope, that will only get you about a 10′ terrace for 100s of thousands of dollars. So build a bunch of decks right? Well since it’s a high fire severity zone, that decking has to be class A fire rated. That means you can only use ipe or mangaris and on the cheap end that will be $12/sqft wholesale material cost just for the decking. Redwood and Trex are right out since they have a class c fire rating. So basically, without an unlimited budget you can either build an interesting flat house on stilts or a plain box that engages the topography. I’m guessing they didn’t have an unlimited budget.

      • Thank you skr; you saved me from having to write all of this. I guess the brilliant commentators above have never been to the site before construction to see how steep the site is, and how much darker it would be deeper into the site.

      • There are a lot of false either/or choices in the way you frame it. . . but it sounds like you are as familiar with the Hillside Ordinace and Chapter 7 as I am . We agree that the end result is one outcome of the maximum code/minimum cost equation that developers use. . which is a fine way to describe the building. My feeling is just that this is lowering the bar if we start claiming it is architecture, let alone good architecture. The same architect (Storey-Anonymous) did a house in my neighborhood Mt. Washington that similarly illustrates the lowest common denominator of budget and code (which is why I am making the argument when I see this weak stuff proliferating and being called architecture).

        This is a very sad statement- “So basically, without an unlimited budget you can either build an interesting flat house on stilts or a plain box that engages the topography”. Even accepting the ridiculous “unlimited budget” dichotomy- what about a 3 level house on stiits, a 50/50 retaining walls and stits, roof balconies rather than flamable decks, etc. Hillsides are opportunities, not limitations, and other architects seem to be figuring this out. It shouldn’t cost more to ask your architect to design in 3 dimensions rather than 2.

        The tree will likely get “attention” from the grocery-store magazines like Dwell, and a few design blog “likes”. . . but when we step back its hard to call this anything but an illustration of how much we’ve lowered our ambitions for what we call architecture.

        • Or how about they just build the house that they want and not your opinion. Its their money and land to build as they like.

          • I agree of course if that is trhe case
            But it seems like this kind of building isn’t the house anybody wants but just the cheapest allowable square footage by code. . and no effort to fit the site. . . just “float” above it and try to act like that is a benefit rather than a detriment.

        • because each time you step down you are going to need another row of piles/grade beams that will cost you at least an extra 40k.

          • so that 3 level house will cost an extra 120k just in foundation work.

          • same foundations
            shorter support walls on half of the house= less money.
            step in the cross section allows for more interesting potential for circulation, connections, clerestories in roof, privacy, light, etc

            same construction cost and the poor kids don’t have to grow up in something that looks like a double-wide mobile home propped up on a pier.. . oh, with a dead tree in one room.
            I suppose more design time to design in 3d than 2dbut the client shouldn’t have to pay extra for that

            look, I am a musician and I suspect I am arguing with an architect under a pen name which is just silly. Who else would care this much.

            I see developers designing the same way from the maximum envelope-least cost inward with no archiotectural skill and we all get up in arms. When this approach happens in residential design it is equally disheartening. We should all want better than this.

        • This is not an inexpensive house.

  3. Thank you Roberto! I am so happy to know that there are sophisticated people out there who understand the value of architecture that engages the topography.

    In Simon Storey’s case I wonder if maybe he is limited in what building solutions he can show his clients since as far as I know he isn’t a licensed architect. Unlicensed people are only allowed to design up to a two story house and on a steep hillside once you exceed one story it can be very hard not to have the house count as a three story house since if the floor of the lower story is over 12′ (or something like that) above the ground at any point the space below counts as an additional story even if it is unoccupied crawl space. You can pull off a two story house on a gradually sloping lot but it is really tough not to cross over to three stories on a steep slope.

      • those are all examples where the house takes the “floating” approach to the site but each one uses it as a start to reinvent the character of the architecture from there. . . i.e. they do not look like a typical flatland house. I hate that we have to look back 60-80 years to find interesting examples. . . aren’t we supposed to be getting BETTER at this stuff. Even if this was as good as those examples- it means something different now that nature is equally revered and feared and should reflect that.

        I don’t know – maybe strangling a tree IS the poetic expression of our zeitgeist.
        Maybe a suburban houseplan plopped on a pier IS who we are now?
        Maybe building cheap andboring and then spinning it as “innovative” and “green” for blog attention IS what architecture is about now?

    • Does this mean that an owner-designer-builder can’t build a three story structure of his design if it meets code and safety considerations after review by a civil engineer? Seems rather a controlling code and an unfair code at that.

  4. I am just tired of the noise that they have been making for over a year now. All of the neighbors here are fed up! They have disrupted everybodys lives. It’s bad enough that we had to deal with that other house above them. SSSSSHHHHHEEEEESSSSSSHHHHHH!!!!! Who are these people anyway?

  5. The fact that hillside construction is so expensive is why we’re seeing a rush of small lot subdivisions in the hills-without regard to things like appropriateness, public safety, parking, or even practical matters like “where will all the trash cans go?”

    • Echo Park resident

      Sigh. The trash cans will go on the street, poorly placed so that they take up almost all available parking on the street. (Remember, there’s mostly street parking only in Echo Park.) Then, the homeowners will yell at you as you try to rearrange their cans (taking up 4 parking spaces when they could take up 2) in a more compact manner so you can park your car and go to your home in the evening.

      …or, at least, that seems to be the way things go in my part of EP.

      • that’s really more the city’s failure for not allowing private removal / dumpsters. they should amend their rules.

        And I mean this honestly and without any snark: exactly where in echo park is this happening? I wash’t aware of any small-lots that are fully built and occupied yet back in the hills. do you mean the artis place?

        • Echo Park resident

          This happens anywhere in Echo Park where there are more than one homes/units on one lot and there are no driveways/garages because the homes are over 100 years old. Wasn’t a jab at Artis (As much as those suck) but more of an observation about how our streets are already jammed up from older multi-unit dwellings. (For example, there are no apartments on my street near Gateways, but there are many duplexes or two/three houses on one lot situations. That means there are 12 trashcans for some of these lots. No driveways or garages for cars means the trash cans and residents are fighting for space — and, my god, some people are really rude with how they arrange their bins and get very heated and defensive when you nicely ask them to move so you can park by your home.)

  6. I believe those negative about this home are merely envious. It seems to be a rather creative solution to afford privacy and square footage. This home does not impinge upon the view that one has on Park Drive when one passes by. I do feel the home might have a great feeling inside once it is completed..well within a traditional vibe of Echo Park hillside structures that require that the resident walk down into the home. Were they to build the home at street level, I don’t think they would gain much and would encroach upon the feeling of openness one still has next to that lot. Other solutions would have been really creative if code allowed, witness John Launtner’s “Chemisphere”. But at what cost? Or maybe the neighborhood should donate to a building fund for this home so it can built to “intellectual/pundit standards” requisite to dare try something new in our now trendy neighborhood? Would you donate, or would you rather donate to a political party?

    So let’s not judge this home at all as “non-architecture”; for example, the seamless steel roof which appears to be a hip design, rather than flat or peaked, is very interesting and geometric. It breaks new ground. The driveway looks graceful and is not a direct line downhill. I am sure the engineers on this project also had to consider the soil conditions and placement of the home. The home might also be energy efficient since it is not directly exposed to the sun; heating and cooling might cost less money in the long run.

    I also think that since the placement of the home is not at street level, the owners are taking a risk being on low ground…risk from water encroachment or, heaven forbid, an errant vehicle crashing into their property.

    I have also been in some beautiful homes that are strong, well built, and below street level in Silverlake on Angus. Being below grade takes one into a more private world which is also a bonus in this hectic city.
    I also find it arrogant that some have suggested that this home is not architecture. I bet the home will be a beautiful environment and work well. Or, would you prefer a copy of an obsolete mid century style post and beam home with large windows with a view towards trees that are so close to the home in any event? Or maybe we should or could have a post modern home that uses California bungalow cues poorly done with today’s materials? Or maybe a steel framed box clad with corrugated metal and chain link fencing defining boundaries? Or maybe a hardi-board encrusted home painted in various vivid colors aping Mondrian and trendy pseudo-folk artists/designers that sometimes are encouraged in Echo Park?

    Or how about a series of metal pre-fabs on lolly columns, interlinked, with some kind of trendy name. Be sure to include the address numbers at street level with the font that Neutra used!

    Yup, kudos to this home. I wish it and its future occupants well, very well. And the “noise” means jobs in this difficult economy. The noisemakers have families to feed. Or better they should be eco or social or neighborhood organizers and not earn money the hard way?

    • Why is there an assumption that any cricisism is somehow calling for more conservative architecture? The opposite really, I want architecture that claims to be interesting to actually be interesting, surprising, thoughtful and new. The fact that there is no argument here for it’s ideas, experiential qualities or aesthetics other than the code requirements or budget constraints suggests there isn’t much ambition beyond that anyway. Thats fine, just call it what it is.

      If you think the “roof shape is groundbreaking” you aren’t looking at very much architecture and you don’t expect much in the way of content or ideas. . do you? Is a “different shaped roof”, or “it meets code” our highest artistic ambition really?

      • I was in error, the “roof construction breaks new ground” for this neighborhood, IMO, since it is seamless steel with a hip roof configuration. I’ve not seen that around here in THIS area; I may be mistaken. I also am of the mind that homes are essentially machines first; aesthetic designs second, although the latter is indeed important.

        However, I am glad that those likely in the fine arts are not designing homes as a rule. Some shapes and forms are classic and what is “new” is not always the best. Note the timeless popularity of the Porsche 911 and its evolving iterations over 50 years. The Pontiac Aztek SUV was new, but ugly doesn’t make “new” good or great by default.

        The Disney Center downtown by Gehry certainly is an exciting structure to look at and I really like it, but I’ve heard that it leaks, leaks likely due to its complexity and that it is formed by an unforgiving material…stainless steel on the outside. But I’d suppose a purist in the world of art would consider that a problem to be solved via a pan or bucket under the leaking area.

  7. the main thing i’m taking away from this argument is the uncomfortable feeling that someone who is not a licensed architect is allowed to design a house perched precariously on a hillside.

    also, assuming that the owners/builders realize that the tree will expand in diameter as it grows over the years, i wonder how they’ve accounted for that fact? and, steel frame or not, i don’t see how it will withstand 60mph santa ana winds, or an event like the dry hurricane of a few years ago, without snapping and/or tearing off the corner of the house.

  8. So what if the designer is not a licensed architect. Architects are usually not civil engineers. The plans must be submitted and signed off by a licensed structural engineer. The lot has to first be surveyed by a licensed surveyor to settle setback and practical issues. Then a licensed geological engineer has to test and then sign off on the integrity of the “dirt”. Architects are rarely not licensed in the fields of civil engineering and geological engineering.
    The role of the architect, in my view, is therefore, a bit fluid. Architects may not be great designers, but now how to design something that passes code and price points. Or some architects can do the former and do so very skillfully and artfully. In the final analysis, people design homes, not professions. I don’t think Noah was a naval architect. Simon Rodia was not an architect nor was he a civil engineer, but he built the Watts Towers. Mickey Thompson was not a licensed mechanical engineer, nor is Dennis Manning. Both built land speed record vehicles; in Thompson’s case, the world’s fastest car and in Manning’s case, the world’s fastest motorcycle.

    An engineer pointed out to me that a “real” English Tudor style home, built from old ship timbers, feature timber sizes and choices that generally conform to the uniform building codes (re. strength, span, and sizes) that are in place today. Also, many, if not all, homes built in Los Angeles prior to 1933, that are still standing, met the test of 60 mph Santa Ana Winds and a “dry hurricane” for decades. Many of those still-standing homes were built by carpenters.

    I am not making a case against credentials or expertise per se. “Expertise and credentials” are an alleged protection for the consumer, but may not always be protective. Ideally, they should. In reality, they are not always.

    I think some of the negative comments about this soon to be likely beautiful home have a “smell” of elitism and jealousy beyond envy. I am envious re. this home, but proud that it is going up in my neighborhood.

    Oh, and have you heard about that uneducated, sub human animal, a mere rodent? The name of that animal is a beaver.

    • all well and good, and points taken.

      however, my comment about the winds was aimed at the tree growing through the roof, and not at the integrity of the structure itself…and it was more of a question at how they’ve dealt with the possibilities than a criticism. i’m genuinely curious. i once lived in a townhouse which had a large pine tree growing through a deck, but the builders hadn’t accounted for the combination of growth in trunk diameter and wind-induced sway, and the opening was too small. every time the wind exceeded 30 or 40mph, it felt like the tree was going to rip the deck off the structure.

      as for envy, i have none…i own a perfectly lovely, elevated-over-a-steep-hillside home of my own with an unobstructed, 180 degree view, and i love my neighborhood. my apologies if my comment seemed snarky or negative.

      • as for the beaver comment, i’m not sure of your point. is it something to do with the fact that they build dams?

        ants build insanely complex structures too, as do spiders and hundreds of other animal species. i don’t see the relevance.

  9. all well and good, and points taken.

    however, my comment about the winds was aimed at the tree growing through the roof, and not at the integrity of the structure itself…and it was more of a question at how they’ve dealt with the possibilities than a criticism. i’m genuinely curious. i once lived in a townhouse which had a large pine tree growing through a deck, but the builders hadn’t accounted for the combination of growth in trunk diameter and wind-induced sway, and the opening was too small. every time the wind exceeded 30 or 40mph, it felt like the tree was going to rip the deck off the structure.

    as for envy, i have none…i own a perfectly lovely, elevated-over-a-steep-hillside home of my own with an unobstructed, 180 degree view, and i love my neighborhood. my apologies if my comment seemed snarky or negative.

  10. lol…and sorry for the duplicate post, the website seemed to be acting up.

  11. Just another case of nouveau riche yuppies that conflate identity with material possessions. No one else would put so much effort into their home, and yet miss the mark so badly.

    • Chester, can you give us an operational definition of “noveau riche yuppies”? I have difficulties with that term, since it has been, in my view, used to describe a variety of younger individuals who have means.

      I consider myself a “yuppie” since I earned a good deal of money at a very young age as an engraver and gunsmith. I invested wisely, and retired young. However, I feel that I spend my money wisely supporting worthy causes including many foundations that artfully restore classic cars from the 50’s. This is just one example.

      It is OK to be a “yuppie” in my view. I’d rather be, any day, rich vs. poor.

  12. AtomZ, the relevance is that mankind’s instincts and ability to learn often lead to our species building strong things based upon primal forces, in an atavistic sense, that lead us to so often make good decisions. Often, one can build with the axiom: “If it looks correct, it likely is correct.” This does not always hold true, but more often than not. Neutra himself was well of man’s atavistic nature and correct instincts given some of his architectural choices, and I am not totally enamored with Neutra’s work re. my goals for a home, but highly respect his work and think his works are beautiful.

    My mention was to be sarcastic re. the dam-building rodent to illustrate that formal education per se is not always requisite to create something that can also be described technically via mathematical description and scientific rules. Sometimes a logical “wag”, a wild ass guess, produces an elegant solution. Then one can take his or her wags to an expert for verification of their accuracy.

    However, I have great respect for architects, those who are artistic, and engineers. It could, perhaps, be argued, that architects and engineers work with physical and emotional “rules” and discoveries in our natural world that lead to their building safe, practical, and aesthetic structures.

    My only critique of the home is simply: I hope that the obligatory Prius or Subaru, indigenous to Echo Park these days, does not run off of Park Drive or Duane and crash into the home or, heaven forbid, one of its residents. This is more likely to happen in our times due to our more hectic lifestyles, cup holders in cars, texting, and preoccupations that impact upon us all. (Yes it is I who is being “snarky” here re. the automobile brands..)

    I do wonder about the growth of that tree. But I think it will prove to be less of a danger compared to the very dangerous (and should be removed everywhere in So-Cal) eucalyptus tree. A dirty, firehazard of a tree, known to drop its branches suddenly and without warning. Such events are known to kill and maim. I suspect this big pine tree is relatively slow growing in any case, and that the area below it in the home acts as a big planter to catch water etc. It also looks like it is a known slow-grower, like an Italian Stone Pine which is a well behaved tree in any case. I wouldn’t want that feature, nice to look at, but a termite habitat, a dust collector, and a bit of a gimmick in any event. More for a commercial/public space than a private residence, but great if the residents enjoy it and the compromises they must make when living so closely “with”, but not near, a tree.

  13. errata re. one of my comments: I wrote: “”. Architects are rarely not licensed in the fields of civil engineering and geological engineering.”

    Should read: “Architects are rarely licensed in the fields of civil engineering and geological engineering.”

  14. beautiful.

    I pass the tree-house on my weekend hikes on elysian park (it’s on park drive). i also pass the fairbanks house a lot when I cut through the street, love how simple and out of place it is.

    great work.

  15. I get your criticism on this project and many good points.
    First of all, the posting is premature to get this kind of discussion. The house is still constructing and not much info on surrounding environment. Also, cliche of eco-friendly is the adultery of good architecture, meaning good design doesn’t have to proclaim loudly “eco-friendly at the opening sentence. Echo-friendly is not mainly coming from trees and not touching the land. On the other hand, the cheap construction is in fact eco-friendly that lowing the cost of building is in fact part of architects’ job description. Good architecture is considered and reflected all the complexity into account: economic, social, political aspects, and further engaged in subliminal aesthetics. Flat or box or cling to topo, whichever architect decide to execute the design. The delicate balance in scale, proportion, materiality, framing views, engaging with neighborhood sensitivity to the surrounding, lowering the cost as much to get to the essence, client’s need…etc, all are there to be dealt by competent architect who trained to be a problem solver. We don’t argue on good architecture cause we: :human can identify, relate to power of good building.

  16. A few of you folks sure do take yourselves seriously. Maybe the couple simply wanted to build an Eco-friendly home which was aesthetically pleasing to THEM and within their budget.

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