Solar Umbrella House by Brooks + Scarpa Architects
Brooks + Scarpa Architects have managed to transform a tiny Venice bungalow in Los Angeles, California into a magnificent, spacious residence that spans across multiple levels. But that is not the most impressive fact about the Solar Umbrella House.
As its name suggests, this home allows sustainable modern living by fusing energy efficiency with an energy neutral design.
Inspired by Paul Rudolph’s Umbrella House of 1953, the Solar Umbrella provides a contemporary reinvention of the solar canopy—a strategy that provides thermal protection in climates with intense exposures. Nestled amidst a neighborhood of single story bungalows the residence establishes a precedent for the next generation of California modernist architecture. Located on a 41’ wide x 100’-0” long through lot, the new addition transforms the architects’ existing 650 square foot bungalow into a total 1,900 square foot residence equipped for responsible living in the twenty-first century.
In establishing the program for their residence, which accommodates the couple and their one child chose to integrate into the design, principles of sustainability that they strive to achieve in their own practice. The architects carefully considered the entire site, taking advantage of as many opportunities for sustainable living as possible. Passive and active solar design strategies render the residence 100% energy neutral. Recycled, renewable, and high performance materials and products are specified throughout. Hardscape and landscape treatments are considered for their aesthetic and actual impact on the land. The residence elegantly crafts each of these strategies and materials, exploiting the potential for performance and sensibility while achieving a rich and interesting sensory and aesthetic experience.
Taking advantage of the unusual through lot site condition, the addition shifts the residence 180 degrees from its original orientation. What was formerly the front and main entry at the north becomes the back as the new design reorganizes the residence towards the south. This move allows the architects to create a more gracious introduction to their residence and optimizes exposure to energy rich southern sunlight. A bold display of solar panels wrapping around the south elevation and roof becomes the defining formal expression of the residence. Conceived as a solar canopy, these panels protect the body of the building from thermal heat gain by screening large portions of the structure from direct exposure to the intense southern California sun. Rather than deflecting sunlight, this state of the art solar skin absorbs and tranforms this rich resource into usable energy, providing the residence with 100% of its electricity. Like many design features at the Solar Umbrella, the solar canopy is multivalent and rich with meaning—performing several roles for both functional, formal and experiential effect.
By removing only one wall at the south, the architects maintain the primary layout of the existing residence. The original bungalow, which was tightly packed with program (kitchen, dining, living, two bedrooms and a bath) is joined by a sizable addition to the south, which includes a new entry, living area, master suite accommodations, and utility room for laundry and storage. The kitchen, which once formed the back edge of the residence, opens into a large living area, which in turn, opens out to a spacious front yard. An operable wall of glass at the living area delicately defines the edge between interior and exterior. An unbroken visual corridor is established from one end of the property to the other. Taking cues from the California modernist tradition, the architects conceive of exterior spaces as outdoor rooms. By creating strong visual and physical links between outside and inside, these outdoor rooms interlock with interior spaces, blurring the boundary and creating a more dynamic relationship between the two. The entry sequence along the western edge of the property further demonstrates this concept.
A cast in place concrete pool provides a stong landscape element and defines the path to the front entry. Upon reaching the entry, the pool cascades into a lower tier of water that penetrates and interlocks with the geometry and form of the residence. In a move that reinvents the welcome mat, stepping stones immersed in the water create an initiatory rite of passage into the residence as the visitor is invited walk across water. The distinction between outside and inside is once again blurred.
The master suite on the second level reiterates the strategy of interlocking space. Located directly above the new living area, up a set of floating, folded plate steel stairs, the bedroom strategically opens onto a deep covered patio which overlooks the garden. Conceptually reminiscent of R.M. Schindler’s Kings Road Residence, this patio extends the bedroom area outdoors, creating the sensation of a sleeping loft exposed to the exterior. This deep porch carves out an exterior space within the visual bounds of the building envelope and provides the front elevation with a distinctive character. What appears to be a significant area of the second floor is actually never enclosed but rather it is protected by the planes, which wrap around it.
A dynamic composition of interlocking solid and void creates a richly layered depth to the design. Transparency through the house allows views to penetrate from front to back. The structure appears to sit lightly upon the land. Formal elements along these visual corridors—i.e. stairs, bearing walls, structural columns, guardrails, built-in furniture and cabinetry– vary in density, color and texture. Light penetrates the interior of the residence at several locations. A series of stepped roofs, glazed walls, and clerestory windows broadcast light from multiple directions. Light and shadow—ephemeral and constantly changing effects–become palpable formal tools that enliven the more permanent and fixed elements of the design. Together, all of these components establish an effectively layered composition rich in visual and formal interest.
Throughout the residence, the architects resourcefully take materials and contextually reposition them as design elements. Solar panels, conventionally relegated to a one-dimensional utilitarian application, define envelope, provide shelter and establish a distinctive architectural expression. Homosote, an acoustical panel made from recycled newspaper is palm-sanded and used as a finish material for custom cabinets. OSB (oriented strand board) a structural grade building material composed of leftover wood chips compressed together with high strength adhesive, becomes the primary flooring material where concrete is not used. Sanded, stained and sealed, the OSB floor paneling provides a cost effective and materially responsible alternative to hardwood. Materials are selected for both performance and aesthetic value.
Metal stud construction replaces conventional wood framing. Recycled steel panels, solar powered in-floor radiant heating, high efficiency appliances and fixtures, and low v.o.c. paint replace less efficient materials. Decomposed granite and gravel hardscape, including a stormwater retention basin are used in place of concrete or stone. Unlike their impervious alternatives, these materials allow the ground to absorb water and in turn, mitigate urban run-off to the ocean. Drought tolerant xeriscaping compliments the textures and palette of the building while providing a low maintenance, aesthetically appealing.