The Quiet House and the Noisy House

February 8, 2013 § 1 Comment

Metropolitan Home, Feb. 1992

Metropolitan Home, Feb. 1992.

When our family began, she had two sons, I one. They were just out of preschool when we married. One more, a strong intelligent little girl, and there were six of us. A small family by our grandparent’s standards, but enormous by our peers’. We struggled together to make our blended family thrive. The boys, confused and angered by the destruction of their once cherished nuclear families, were often in conflict. It sometimes seemed as though everyone resented everyone’s relationship with everyone else. All this was always crammed into too-tiny homes – first a cute 900 sq. ft. house in a marginal neighborhood near downtown LA, all three boys sharing one of the two 100 sq. ft. bedrooms, and our tiny daughter sharing our bed in the other. Then, boldly, we moved to a smaller 600 sq. ft. house in rustic and idyllic Topanga Canyon. The three boys shared one 8 x 15 ft. detached studio: a constant and amazing pit of chaos. Privacy was a luxury that seemed reserved to the rich.

We began to know that our home was a powerful metaphor for our shared lives, and that we must find a physical habitat that contained spaces and forms that would support and nurture each of us. We continued to look for this home. We were totally hooked on the wonderful small-townesque community in the Santa Monica mountains, and determined to stay. But real estate prices were skyrocketing as it became fiscally related to its neighboring communities of Pacific Palisades and Malibu. 3 and 4 bedroom houses, rare in the cabin-littered canyon, cost much more than we could afford. So we gave up.

Then tragically, my mother died, but left me with a large life insurance benefit. We began our search again in the now more-inflated market, only to be discouraged by the dearth of suitable homes within even our swelled budget.  Finding nothing that we could afford that even came close to meeting our needs, we began to look at vacant land, and began to design our home.

Friends, architects, builders all advised us not to buy raw land. Everyone warned us of the nightmares of the bureaucratic labyrinth involved in building a house. But this “House” had become not only a metaphor for the potential structure of our family, it had become a model for that structure, and it became clear to me that it must conversely be modeled on what I knew we needed our family to become. So despite the precipitous logistics of such a project, we leapt.

My wife and I had phenomenally different experiences of childhood, and very different expectations of our new home. I felt that being together in one space, even at different tasks, always available to each other, builds a sense of unity and support that our family needed. I felt a need for an airy, open plan with texture and room for the chaos that our number, and my eclectic interests, always seemed to generate. I thrive in such over-stimulated, disorderly environments, where I may move easily from one activity to another. My wife, on the other hand, felt a strong need for a refuge from such chaos. She had always craved a calm, aesthetic space, orderly and soothing to the nerves. And unfortunately, with six of us in a small house, this was a need she was rarely able to satisfy. As for the boys, they were nearing puberty, and were disturbed by their lack of privacy. They were discovering their autonomy, and yet so often their exuberant boyishness would become intolerable inside the house.

We each found ourselves drawn to differing styles as well. I love a practical, industrial, modern look, and my wife enjoyed a more traditional and romantic style. Of course, at times, I too I enjoy a calm space just as she enjoys an active space. We wanted it all. We pleaded and negotiated, cried and argued through different concepts and designs. And while we searched for some land, we continued to close in on our design.

Finally, in a neighborhood with an unusual sense of community, we found two lots, across 8 acres of steep chaparral with a magical seasonal creek, barely enough flat land to build a couple of houses, questionable geology, but what a feeling! It was backed up against the state park at the end of a mile of dusty road, and had a quiet that one thought could no longer be found within a half hour of town. But the smaller, more buildable lot contained the access to the larger lot, and the thought of someone perhaps awfully else buying that lot and traipsing across in front of our house did not fit the model that was beginning to grow. The only solution to this particular site seemed to be to find someone we could live with to buy the second lot. My older sister was the perfect solution, and I was eventually able to persuade her and her husband and young son to come in with us. We purchased both lots, held them together in joint tenancy, and eagerly began to plan our new homes: a little community in the oaks that we knew our mother and father would have loved.

Very soon we realized that the money that was left after the land purchase was just a drop in the development bucket. The geology and soil work was costing thousands, the permit fees were huge, the county asked for more and more geology work – soon almost all of our money was gone. As we were laughed out of one bank after another, it became clear to us that we were in way over our heads. But with so many of us dreaming the same dream, there was almost no way for it not to become real.

As we slowly caressed and coaxed the bureaucracy, we finally began to see the form of our home begin to coalesce. I once had taught at an alternative high school in the Santa Cruz mountains. There was a large communal kitchen and dining room, and classrooms and offices in three other buildings nearby. 14 sleeping domes had been built by the students and scattered around the magnificent 40 acre site. At class, meal or meeting times, the staff and students would walk through the woods to come together in the common spaces. While living there I came to love the way the layout forced me out into the natural world many times each day, and kept me in touch with the seasons, the stars, the weather, and the changing light of the day. I loved the way we each had our own private space, and the way the common spaces felt all the more united for the lack of use-conflict.

This became the model for our little community. Each person with his own separate structure as a bedroom, and a large central common building to serve as kitchen-living-den-family-dining room. Our hilly-open-wooded site was well suited to this idea. Each of us would design his private space, imbuing it with the qualities that his own sensibilities demanded. Each of us would have a refuge, just as family as a greater being would have its refuge. The boys, as well as most of our friends, were a little unsure of the idea of having to go outside to get from one’s bedroom to the kitchen, TV or bathroom, but everyone came to appreciate the autonomy and the contact with the natural world that such a layout provides. Living here, it is almost impossible to overlook a lovely sunset.

As we began to refine our designs with the help of a friend and an architect, we realized that our concept for the layout of the structures clashed with the reality of the building codes in the extremely conservative Los Angeles County Department of Building and Safety. We also discovered the necessity of conforming with certain norms for the purpose of assuring that we would be able to convince a bank to give us the $600 some thousand that would be required to build even modest structures. Compromises with these omnipotent external forces finally resolved into the design of 2 separate structures: the “Quiet House” and the “Noisy House” (I guess we may have to call the boy’s cabins “storage sheds”).

In keeping with our differing needs, my wife designed the Quiet House, and I the Noisy House. The Quiet House has a traditional look that recalls the houses in her native New England, with wood divided light windows and french doors, fan lights above the entry doors, and a peaked roof. The Quiet House contains the master bedroom, which, even though shared with me, was her private space – bearing considerable spiritual importance for her as a sanctuary. Our young daughter, who was only just leaving our bed and discovering the individuation that comes with 7 years old, had a bedroom across the hall. An elegant bathroom with a large tub also joined the large 6 ft. wide hallway, as well as a small office. This hallway opens into the center of a large room. Intentionally the least used of the some 17 rooms we have built, I think of this space as the parlor, but it is most often referred to as the quiet living room. We use this room for more special family dinners and for entertaining, so our nicer dishes and such are stored on open shelves rather than in closed kitchen cabinets, and the kitchen is much like a large wet bar. Beneath this room, down an outside stairway, is a large shop-space/laundry room. This whole house is intended as a sanctuary for all of us, a place to read quietly, talk with friends, take a long hot bath, or just escape the hustle and bustle of family life.

30 ft. to the west, and 2 ft. higher on the same north facing 1.5:1 slope is the Noisy House. The county requires a 15 ft. upslope setback area which, being shielded from the road and the neighbors by the structures and joining the entries of each house makes a large private courtyard of sorts. This area was planned, funds willing, to become a densely landscaped glade with a creek-like lap pool. Starting from this courtyard, 6 ft. wide redwood decks run down the adjacent elevations, and then across the high downslope sides, facing an almost pristine panorama of hills and chaparral.

I designed the Noisy House to be a large communal lodge with a soft but industrial look. The shed roof rises from 13 ft. on the downslope northern elevation to 18 ft. on the upslope courtyard side. Through three 7 x 8 ft. high single light glass french doors, this southern elevation faces the future location of the pool-glade, and, further up the hill, the boys cabins. The roof is supported above a 2 ft. band of glass that completely reveals the open-web trusses from the outside, and a 360 deg. band of sky from the inside. This band of sky was inspired by a common elevator design trick of placing a narrow band of mirror below the ceiling to give a false sense of space to the inevitably confining elevator cars. I have always loved the feel of gymnasiums and lodges, and this detail works very well to give this room the feel of such an enormous space. A 10 ft. deep sleeping loft for visiting friends runs across the east end of the 20 x 40 ft. room, and partially encloses a small windowless room that we call the “theater”. Here, a 4ft. high platform with storage beneath and with two standard double-bed mattresses end-to-end on top, acts as a ruff and tumble giant couch, facing the TV-nintendo-stereo-bookcase wall. This wall, supporting the inward edge of the loft, also backs the stove, refrigerator, and counters of our main family kitchen. The 38 in. counters wrap around into a peninsula that divides the kitchen from the rest of the room. A 30 in. counter starts on the dual height peninsula and wraps the rest of the way around the room to the southern elevation. A rugged 8 x 10 ft. bathroom, cantilevered off the east elevation, is tiled with symmetrical flat stones that we had collected at the beach over the past three years. The copper plumbing, feeding two face-to-face shower heads, is mounted on the surface of each wall. The shower’s sliding glass door exits into what will someday become a small, walled garden-court with a third outside shower head. Also in the noisy bathroom is a urinal, a toilet, and a lavatory molded into a concrete counter, mounted atop a small river-rock wall.

We have tried hard to site and design the houses to handle, passively and cheaply, the fairly radical (by Southern California standards) weather changes that occur in this little valley. We are installing lovely and efficient Jotul wood stoves to be fueled by the grotesque amount of trash wood I generate in my work as a set designer. In the Quiet House, air circulates through high hopper windows in every room. Vaulted ceilings funnel the heat into the peak of the central hallway, where 3 ceiling fans circulate heated air either into the rooms in the winter, or extract it and exhaust it through operable skylights in the summer.

The Noisy House was to have a long deep arbor of Wisteria shading the big, southern-facing doors in the summer, while allowing the winter sun through. The low-E glass in the high clerestory window is protected by a short overhang with four operable 2 x 8 ft. awning windows at the highest point of the house to vent the heat in the summer. Another cast-iron Jotul stove, a white elephant of a coal stove we were able to get a great deal on, will easily heat the single large room – again with ceiling fans helping to either extract or return the heated air to the floor.

My sister’s house is about 100 ft. away in a beautiful ring of oaks. It is a simple and efficient 24 x 24 ft. two story post and beam house with ultra-insulated stressed-skin-panel walls. The house was adapted from an Alex Wade design that would not have conformed to local earthquake standards. The frame was re-engineered, beautifully built, and quickly erected and skinned by Terry Turney of Pacific Post and Beam in San Luis Obispo. The open-plan living room and kitchen are upstairs, and the 3 bedrooms downstairs. In keeping with the fact that cooling is a more difficult problem in our climate, we have rotated the house so that the two-story solar greenhouse now faces almost north. It picks up the beautiful light from the sky and the sunrise, but little heat. Almost all of the huge 6×8 to 6×14 oiled doug fir beams of the frame are exposed inside the house, and we have left the pine 2×6 tongue and groove exposed as the finished floor and ceiling. The house sits so well among the old trees – so much the same scale as them, so much the same stuff.

When we broke ground, we had already been living on the site for the two years it took to get approval from all the necessary agencies. There were nine of us living in our temporary compound that we had built for about $5000, and consisting of: 4 trailers, 5 tents, one tipi, a shipping container and a chemical toilet. My sister and brother-in-law are actors, and together, he and I do motion picture art direction, designing and coordinating set and prop construction. Our work is sporadic, and at the time we got our $600,000 construction loan, all four of us were out of work. My wife and sister both returned to working full time as special ed teachers, while my brother-in-law and I built the houses. The thought of coming home each night to the unalterable realities of someone else’s standards was just intolerable, so we took a year off to oversee the project ourselves. This required that we also borrow the construction loan payments, and that we definitely finish in less than a year. We took everything we had, along with a great deal of what we didn’t have, and committed it to an enormous and terrifying project in the hopes of building a new kind of life for our families.

At each step of the project, from finding buildable land, to permits, to loans, to the actual construction, everyone told us that we were over our heads – and we were. We didn’t have the money, the knowledge, or the skills, and many people, who do have them, fail. But, once we had spent all our money on the land and the development and moved into our camp, I felt that I couldn’t turn back. Never has any project so thoroughly taxed my personal resources: physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual. And never has any result been so gratifying. Even though we were not been able to completely finish our houses, we saw a profound effect on our family. Everyone was able to breathe more easily in the spaciousness of this layout, and yet everyone was closer as well. There was room and acceptance for separateness, and space and encouragement for togetherness.

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