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Ehrlich Residence

Santa Monica, California

Back to the Garden: John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects skillfully satisfied their client’s sustainability mandate

By Aric Chen

When craig ehrlich, a Hong Kong-based private investor, decided to spend more time in his native Los Angeles, he approached John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects (JFAK) to design a new house there on a property he already owned. In addition to wanting the home to embody a slight Asian inflection, Ehrlich had just two seemingly straightforward requirements: One, it had to be sustainable. (Ehrlich’s then-girlfriend, a former Hong Kong legislator, happened to be on the board of the Rocky Mountain Institute.) Two, he wanted a big garden. “Having lived in Hong Kong for 16 years, I wanted openness, fresh air, and all the things I don't get living in a flat in Hong Kong,” he says.

Ehrlich Residence
Photo © Benny Chan/Fotoworks
Ehrlich Residence. Santa Monica, California

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LOCATION: Santa Monica, CA (Los Angeles basin)

GROSS SQUARE FOOTAGE: 3,900 ft2 (362 m2)

COST: $1.1 million

COMPLETED: November 2004



PROGRAM: Residence

OWNER: Craig Ehrlich
ARCHITECT: John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects
LANDSCAPE: Orange Street Studio ENGINEERS: William K. Koh and Associates (Structural), JMC-2 (Civil)
ENVIRONMENTAL CONSULTANT: Loisos+Ubbelohdand Warren Wagner
CONSULTANTS: Acme Environmental (Energy), Light Vision, Fire Ltd. (Lighting)

EXTERIOR CLADDING: painted hardiboard cement siding
CARPET: Interface Flor

Even if the two mandates were not quite at odds, however, neither were they entirely compatible. A desire for optimal sunlight and openness called for the home’s living spaces to be organized around the garden. But the site requirements meant that any garden would have to be at the northeast—facing back. “We worried that not enough natural light would get into the house,” says JFAK principal John Friedman, FAIA.

Commissioned in 2002, the home would be the first sustainably designed project for Friedman and his partner, Alice Kimm, AIA. But the Los Angeles-based husband-and-wife team proved up to the task, creating a handsome modern structure of sunny, open spaces, ship-lapped cement-board cladding, broad overhangs, and ample terraces.

At 3,800 square feet, the three-bedroom, two-story residence sits on a corner, quarter-acre lot, roughly oriented south, on a busy street in Santa Monica. It replaces an existing one-story, post-war ranch house that Ehrlich had owned since before moving to Hong Kong. Upgrading that earlier structure proved impractical. “It would have been like trying to stitch up a sweater that’s got too many holes,” Friedman says. The ranch was dismantled and its salvageable components sent out for reuse.

Starting from scratch also allowed the architects to reorient the house from the increasingly congested road it once fronted to the quieter, perpendicular side street to the southeast. One now enters from the latter, past a stainless-steel-clad garage, an office suite, and into a double-height stair foyer. This reorientation also yielded a solution to the daylighting problem. Above the foyer, the architects installed generous, operable skylights alongside a full-height clerestory “that carves up the volume of the house,” Friedman says, “drawing light from the south side on the second floor into the main living areas downstairs which lie to the north.”

With its minimalist white walls and “heat-sink” concrete floors, the ground level’s open plan also encourages passive airflow, while simultaneously taking advantage of the walled garden. Wrapping around the kitchen, dining, and living areas, a nearly continuous span of sliding, low-e glass doors opens to the exterior, almost entirely dissolving the distinction between indoors and out. (The glass is interrupted only by a solid eight-foot wall that faces the home’s front door—“a good feng shui move,” Friedman says.) Meanwhile, inspired by a similar example in Singapore, Ehrlich suggested adding a koi pond abutting the house. Bracketing the living room, the pond helps cool the garden air, which is then pulled into the house as heat escapes through the same motorized foyer skylights that help bring in natural light. Combined with exterior overhangs and minimal glazing on the sunnier exposures, these passive strategies allowed Friedman and Kimm to avoid air-conditioning altogether.

The architects also zoomed in on active systems and materials as a way of reaching their sustainable goals. Radiant heating was installed in the floors. Graywater recycling irrigates the garden. Photovoltaics on the roof provide an estimated 60 to 70 percent of the home’s energy needs.

Meanwhile, the stair and upper-level flooring are made of FSC-certified Jatoba wood. Also on the second floor, each of the three bedrooms opens onto a terrace; a master bath terrace features an architectural screen of FSC-certified Mangaris, which reappears downstairs as a partition between the dining area and kitchen.

This being their first sustainable project, Friedman and Kimm were bound to learn some lessons. For one, what seems better isn’t always so. “It sounds cool,” Friedman says of recycled-cotton insulation, which he opted not to use, “but it costs twice as much and the Rocky Mountain Institute now tells us the regular pink fiberglass stuff is fine.” At the same time, sustainable measures come with tradeoffs, such as the large fiberglass pans installed beneath the garden for the graywater recycling. “You wonder if people 200 years from now will dig them up and say ‘What were they thinking?’” Friedman jokes.

But in the end, Friedman and Kimm overcame the home’s challenges—allowing their client to learn something, too. “We wanted to go green because that’s something we’re sensitive to,” Ehrlich says. “But what I’ve subsequently discovered is that it really isn’t that hard to do.”

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This article appeared in the January 2009 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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