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Best Green Houses:

Air Supply: Pushing the Limits of Passive Sustainability

Moore Ruble Yudell
Santa Monica, California

By David Sokol
July 2014
Photo © David O. Marlow

Although homeowners are embracing sustainability at an increasing clip, they still express reservations about commissioning the highest-performing custom construction. “They wonder whether a strategy really works—the client doesn’t want to be a guinea pig,” observes Moore Ruble Yudell (MRY) partner Buzz Yudell, adding, “Another concern, which I don’t hear so explicitly is that a sustainable building could be sacrificing aesthetic clarity for a machine. Of course, a house can very carefully integrate technology.”

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Architects often use their own homes as laboratories of expression and functionality. With the 4,500-square-foot infill residence Yudell and MRY architectural colorist Tina Beebe recently completed in Santa Monica, the husband and wife created an exemplar to break through client misconception.

While the new house sports carefully integrated equipment—namely rooftop evacuated solar tubes furnishing all domestic hot water, as well as photovoltaics that produce more electricity than consumed—its creators are decidedly “not techies,” Yudell notes. In turn, Beebe and Yudell had decided to experiment at the outer edges of passive sustainability. As Yudell explains, “We would push the relationship between architecture and natural forces, taking shaping, shading, and air movement farther than we had before.”

Professional aspirations were informed by the personal. Because Beebe and Yudell were moving from a Malibu home pastorally sandwiched between mountains and ocean, “We were thinking about transplanting that very close inside–outside relationship and awareness of nature into an urban setting.” Design moves would have to manifest a landscape experience and energy efficiency simultaneously.

Synchronizing them meant, first, eschewing the squarish boxes that most neighbors had set exactly where zoning dictated. Planning a thin footprint that stretches toward the back of the 60-by-150-foot lot would maximize daylight penetration. And angling of planes would subsequently transform mere access to natural light into a more poetic relationship with it.

As a result, the house rests mostly on the east side of the property. In plan it resembles the Hebrew letter gimel turned on its side: A long staff branches diagonally into two parts to meet the street; elsewhere in the plan, similar angling ensures that every room enjoys at least three exposures. In the back of the house, moreover, the west elevation of the staff was designed to blur building and yard, as large double-glazed windows and sliding doors maximize the daylight dancing on interior surfaces and, when open, ostensibly eliminate the boundary between indoors and out. Deep polycarbonate-and-steel canopies project over the first and second floors to protect this semi-enclosed zone from harsher early- and mid-afternoon sun.

Fenestration along the west side of the house further work in tandem with narrow clerestories and other small openings on the east elevation. Their size difference expedites cross-ventilation through a Venturi effect. Yudell further harnessed that phenomenon at all scale of detail—from organizing the interior around a double-height living room, to placing an overhang over the clerestories—to strengthen convection. Beebe, who is also a landscape designer, meanwhile composed a planted perimeter as a veil of privacy and shade from low-angled sun.

“We started with a straightforward idea about the plan and progressed to a more complex idea about section; then we figured out how to make all that work in terms of light moving through the house and the choreography of the house, and added the landscape layer,” Yudell sums up. “The project was a figuring out of how these things work cumulatively, instead of canceling each other out. It was a deep study of geometry and sun angles.”

Today the homeowners reap the benefits of their work, both in terms of their quality of life and minimal energy bills. Their research also continues, as Yudell reports that “We’re very consciously optimizing the house for shading, the night flushing—this project has taken my awareness of manipulating a house for sun and light and breezes to operating it with a level of clarity I didn’t have before.”

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