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Lightly on the land

Times Staff Writer

They were two guys with an open checkbook, house-hunting in a city full of “for sale” signs. They saw big houses, beautiful houses, brilliantly located houses -- more than 200 in the course of a year -- but not one that their consciences would let them live in. So architect Carter Bravmann and real estate investor Jack Koll built their own.

The environmentally sound, energy-efficient result is a monument to what Bravmann calls their shared desire “to preserve nature and conserve Earth’s limited resources.” And, not so incidentally, to seriously cut down on utility costs. The energy tab for their 3,000-square-foot, two-story house averages $30 per month.

The West Hollywood house has walls and windows of dual-pane glass, 32 75-watt solar panels on its steel roof, a “passive” air-conditioning system that allows hot air to flow diagonally up and out from the living room floor to the upstairs ceiling through banks of strategically placed small windows. And the most energy-efficient appliances available in the world.

“We keep wondering, why doesn’t everybody build like this, why do they all just ignore it?” Bravmann asks.

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Together for seven years, the couple don’t just share ideals; they share an aesthetic. Their contemporary home of glass and steel exudes the comfort and warmth of a Craftsman cottage, with its natural textures and artisan touches. “A lot of people think modern architecture has to be cold,” Bravmann says. “It doesn’t. By incorporating woods and a comfortably human scale, it can be intimate and inviting.” Floors are of wide-plank walnut, a rich wood whose natural color is a deep, burnished brown that needs no stain. It is so resilient, says Koll, that even the two family cats (Vanity Fair and GQ) haven’t been able to scratch it.

Completed a year ago, the modernist rectangle is terraced into a hillside in a neighborhood of homes built in the 1920s but it in no way looks out of place (Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1923 Storer house is four doors away.) Its exterior of glass and smooth, earth-tone stucco blends into the hill and seems to meld with the ancient oak and pine trees. Koll and Bravmann chose the site because it feels remote and serene, with wide-angle city views and abundant greenery. But it is also within easy walking distance of everything they need on a daily basis. Only one-third of a mile above Sunset Boulevard, they can walk the short, steep, winding road to markets, films, restaurants.

“We refuse to be car-dependent,” says Koll, 37, “and we lead a pretty active lifestyle.” He bikes, hikes, swims, skis. Bravmann, 40, cycles 60 miles into the Santa Monica Mountains almost every morning before he sits down to work. When they do drive, it’s usually in a zippy Honda Insight that gets 65 miles per gallon. (Their other car is a Volvo.)

Bravmann, who specializes in designing single-family residences, puts building dollars into quality rather than quantity. “Most people want everything as big as they can possibly get” -- even if it’s unnecessary or counterproductive. For himself and his partner, he designed something smaller than he might have. (The first floor is 1,900 square feet, the upstairs, 1,100). Three spacious bedrooms, 3 1/2baths and two large home offices sit easily in that space, and look larger than they are because of Bravmann’s finesse with proportion, spatial and construction details.

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All the main rooms have glass walls that face panoramic city views. Even the corners, where front and side walls intersect, are of glass -- an engineering feat that requires special framing, but has the effect of making them disappear, so that views are truly wide-angle. “If you have something worth looking at, you should be able to see it,” Bravmann says.

Bravmann’s open floor plan for the living area (900 square feet) is an elongated flow of space that encompasses kitchen, dining and living rooms. “What’s the point of building vast rooms that no one’s going to use? Many houses have family rooms and formal living rooms, which they rarely make use of. We have one room that is a combined family-living room.” (Its focal point is a synthetic stone fireplace with a plasma TV screen recessed into the stone above the hearth. “They say TV is modern America’s equivalent of the fireplace, so we figured we’d combine the two.”)

He and Koll also opted for a single, spacious dining area between living room and kitchen, where they eat at a huge oak table whether alone or with friends. “What we did is eliminate the duplication. We have three spaces for living and dining, instead of five.”

The handsome table, handcrafted in Poland, was a “find,” Bravmann says. “We saw it in Metropolitan Home magazine, fell in love with it. It was priced at $6,000. We happened to show the picture to a friend, who said he’d seen something similar at Crate & Barrel. We went there, and it wasn’t similar at all. It was the exact same Polish table, right down to the brand name. We bought it for about $1,500.” All the furnishings were purchased locally and most of the art is by California artists. “We thought it was important to support locals,” Koll says.

Bravmann designed a chair in the guest room, the coffee table, and the master bed, with a slide-out side table hidden inside the frame, and Pasadena furniture maker Tony Annible built them. Brian Bell, an interior designer from Los Feliz, designed most of the “soft furniture,” and most of the elegant, sensuous upholstery is actually industrial-grade fabric. All interior stonework is by San Fernando Valley stone mason Nick Palucci.

They wanted all the main rooms to have access to the outside. Oversized doors open wide off the living and kitchen areas onto mocha-tone concrete patios that function as outdoor room additions. A compactly terraced garden of vegetables and native plants, designed by landscape architect Judy Kameon, is just outside the kitchen door.

Because both men work full time from home, Bravmann designed view offices for them. His large, square workroom with a wood desk opens onto the living room. When seeing clients, he closes it off via floor- to-ceiling hanging panels of laminate glass. Koll’s upstairs office is a large, loft-like space adjacent to the 700-square-foot master suite, which opens onto a small balcony and a large wood deck of ipe, a fast-growing, environmentally friendly wood that looks like teak, wears well outdoors, and needs no finish. The glass-walled bed-sitting room with fireplace, sofa and chairs overlooks the city from beneath the shelter of a curved roof, its pale wood ceiling shaped like a canopy.

The house cost about $750,000 to build, but would have cost considerably less if the site were at ground level. “We had to use cranes to haul the machinery onto the building site,” contractor Dave Pearson says.

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Remarkably, the energy efficiency that Bravmann built into the house was not the major cost factor, according to Max Balchowsky, of Solar Electric Systems in Palm Springs, who installed the solar panels. He says the original cost of $23,000 was reduced to a total cost of $12,000 after Bravmann received an $11,000 government rebate for using solar energy.

The “passive” air conditioning that Bravmann installed was a simple matter of window installation. “It won’t make the house cold on a 90-degree day, but it will bring the temperature down about 20 degrees,” he says. In addition to the glazed, dual-pane glass, he used 2-by-6 studs instead of 2-by-4, to accommodate a significantly larger amount of insulation. (Although they also have “active” air conditioning, they’ve used it only 10 days this year.)

Appliances in this house make an environmental difference: The clothes washer and dryer, by Asko of Sweden, use significantly less water and energy than other brands, and they get clothes “quite a bit cleaner” to boot, Bravmann says. The dishwasher, by the New Zealand company Fisher & Paykel, is really two stacked but totally separate and independent slide-out dishwashing drawers. The system, which adjusts itself for just a few dishes or a full load, makes it possible to wash delicate china separately from heavily soiled cookware. Dishwashing drawers use less water, energy and detergent, Bravmann says.

Bravmann grew up in Marin County in the 1970s (“around redwoods, the ocean, national parks, rolling hills”), when environmentalism was the hottest educational topic; he was taught about it “starting in preschool,” straight through his architecture courses at UC Berkeley. “The energy crisis of the early ‘70s, the terrible drought of the mid-'70s and several large oil spills which polluted the California coast clearly illustrated the need to conserve and preserve,” he says. “I never went to Disneyland when I was a child and I never missed it.” Koll, from a prominent Orange County real estate family, spent much of his childhood exploring aquatic life in places like Newport Bay, Catalina, the Sea of Cortez. “My dad built a specially designed aquarium that circulated bay water through it, so we could feed and observe the specimens we gathered as kids,” he says. Koll joined the family business and worked for a while developing resorts in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

“I would walk the desert and mark on a map the location of 100-year-old cactus and trees and outcroppings, so we could design around them. Once I even stood in front of a bulldozer to stop it from knocking a cactus over. Many people agreed that it was important to preserve these things. After all, the natural beauty of the area was one of its main attractions.”

He came to believe that instead of developing more raw land, we should focus on redeveloping land already in use. It’s exactly what he and Bravmann did, and they got exactly the house they wanted. “It’s not only a beautiful and comfortable home, it’s also a home that doesn’t use a lot of natural resources. We feel like we’re treading lightly on the land. If everybody did this in L.A.., we wouldn’t have to keep building power plants.”


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