A house turned inside out
CARMEN ROGERS found her new home almost by accident a couple years ago while flipping through the pages of a magazine at the supermarket checkout line. There it was photographed on a steep hillside in Montecito, the home that architect Barton Myers built for himself and his wife in 1998.
Divided into three separate structures, the steel-and-glass house is uncompromisingly industrial in style yet is still in harmony with the unspoiled, oak-filled hillside.
Carmen and her husband, Rick, knew this was the home they wanted, but they didn’t know if it could be adapted for a corner lot on a busy Westside street.
They contacted Myers, who was intrigued by the challenge. Could the new house retain the qualities the couple most admired in his home, particularly the sense of openness to landscape, in a single-family neighborhood, near Olympic Boulevard?
Myers had been toying with the idea of designing a series of houses, each repeating a few signature elements: steel frame, floor-to-ceiling windows and roll-up doors. These projects -- and the Rogerses’ home in particular -- would explore steel home construction and test the idea that the hard-edged design of his Montecito house could fit any location.
The newly finished Rogers house resembles the Myers house in some ways but is anything but a replica. The individual pavilions of the Montecito house march straight down the hill like stair steps. The Rogerses’ house, in contrast, sits on a flat double lot on a busy Westside corner and is built around in a “classic Los Angeles courtyard,” Myers says.
THE architect formed the courtyard by arranging three separate, steel-framed structures in a “U” shape around a long, narrow courtyard. Two of the buildings have roll-up doors filled with windows. (The architect calls them “roll-up curtain walls.”) The more conventional walls have rows of clerestory windows along the roof line to maximize natural light.
At the center is the main house, with a large living-dining room with 16-foot ceilings facing south, while a guest house faces west. On the opposite end is Rick’s home office and pool parlor.
The most dramatic moment occurs when doors on the main house roll up out of sight, literally opening to the courtyard. In this configuration, the house looks almost as if no walls ever existed between indoors and outdoors, much as those walls seem to disappear at Myers’ Montecito house.
For the Rogerses, their new house is the culmination of the couple’s personal passion for architecture and design. After serving as a young actor in television and several beach-party movies of the 1960s, Rick transitioned into fashion design, creating beaded denim garments. He also logged five years at UCLA’s interior design program. Carmen Rogers is an interior designer who recently spent three years refurbishing a hotel in Park City, Utah, where the couple have a second home.
The main building, with living room, dining room, kitchen and two bedrooms, has been sparely furnished with carefully chosen Modernist furniture, much of it chosen by Carmen. Few possessions are on view beyond some small paintings, books and a remarkable wood-burning stove in the shape of a gorilla that the Rogerses bought in France many years ago.
His respect for Myers’ architecture was great enough, Rick said, that he was willing to part with rare furniture and other belongings he thought incompatible with the spare, steel-framed house. “We got rid of a lot of things we didn’t want to get rid of,” he says, “but the idea of insulting the integrity of that architecture is not worth it to me.”
Rick found he had to make other compromises as well. He was ambivalent at first about having a roll-up door on his pool room, which he prefers dark, to avoid glare. To accommodate him, the architect provided a dark, roll-down screen to shade the room from the window-filled doors. Rick, an expert pool player, has filled a basement room next to a wine cellar with his cherished collection of inlaid pool cues. (He calls the room “the cue-midor.”)
A lap pool of black-tinted concrete runs along the foot of a wall that separates the courtyard from the street and serves as a reflecting pool when not in use. Like a fountain, the water spills continuously from the pool into an outer trough, and the sound of water helps to shield the courtyard from the sound of intense traffic during rush hour.
One section of the wall is made of poured-in-place concrete, a material strong enough to support a massive, folded-steel, white-painted sculpture by artist Betty Gold. Attached to the wall by thick, horizontal bolts is the steel artwork, which “weighs as much as a Mini-Cooper,” according to architect Thomas Schneider, who served as Myers’ project architect and chief assistant on the Rogerses’ home.
The notion of a walled house in a dense urban setting appealed to Rick, who said it reminded him of cities in South America, “where you walk down the street and it’s all walls, and suddenly you walk into a beautiful courtyard house.”
MYERS, who built two steel houses in Toronto before the one in Montecito, is one of a small but quickly growing number of architects who are popularizing steel construction in houses for a variety of reasons (see box).
The strength of steel, he explains, allows architects to “compress” a home’s structural frame into a minimal metal skeleton. Unlike a conventional wood frame, the steel structure seems almost to disappear, allowing room for floor-to-ceiling windows, as well as broad, column-free spans.
“Steel allows a kind of transparency that is possible only with a highly confined structure,” says Mark Mack, an architect who teaches a steel-house design class with Barton Myers at UCLA School of Art and Architecture.
The idea of the steel house is not a new one. The first one, according to historians, is the famous Maison de Verre or glass house in Paris, designed by Pierre Chareau in 1932, in which the large spaces on the exterior walls left open by the steel frame are filled with glass block. (Myers often speaks admiringly of the glass house; Rick says he made a special effort to see it during a trip to Paris, decades before hiring Myers to design his own steel house.)
In the 1940s and ‘50s, the experimental Case Study houses reinvigorated the use of steel in housing. Perhaps the most famous, and one of Myers’ acknowledged inspirations, is the Charles and Ray Eames House, a pair of cubic volumes built in 1949 on an ocean bluff south of Malibu. (The first so-called high-tech house, the Eames House was built entirely of existing industrial materials available from catalogs.)
Another of Myers’ favorite courtyard designs is an unbuilt house by Ralph Rapson, assembled in a mock-up version for the Case Study houses exhibit, “Design for Living,” at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 1991. Like the Eames House, the Rapson house introduces a courtyard between two small, square-edged structures. For the Rogerses’ house, Myers first proposed to emulate the Rapson design with only two structures with a courtyard in between.
Currently, steel construction is enjoying another revival, this time due to the popularity of prefab housing designs by young architects and designers such as Jennifer Siegel. (While expressing admiration for prefab projects, Myers says he designs his houses for specific sites unlike many prefab architects, which offer ready-made solutions for any sites. “You have to solve the architectural problem in each location,” he says.)
For Myers, the Montecito house was a return to steel houses, a building type that the architect has been designing for more than 35 years -- he built two steel houses in Canada in the 1970s -- and in which he is an acknowledged pioneer. The high level of interest following the publication of the Montecito house seemed to offer Myers the chance to plunge into a new series of steel houses.
“I got about 50 requests from people who wanted me to design houses for them in that style,” says Myers, “although about half of those dropped out when I told them I required a retainer up front.” The Rogerses were among the clients who decided to hang on to their dreams of a steel house. “I had a picture in my mind’s eye of the house I wanted, and that was it,” Rick says.
Carmen, who had been nervous about building on a busy corner, said she is pleased with the results: “It’s amazing how warm the house is.”
The landscape design by Katherine Glascock is one of the things that Carmen likes most about the house. In the center of the courtyard stands a mature stone pine with twisting, expressive branches and long needles. Unable to dig in the side garden because of buried utility lines, Glascock built a hill out of terraces and filled the terraces with papyrus sprays and other exotic plants.
“There is so much glass in the house that we wanted something really good to look at out those windows,” Rick said. “The garden became the artwork for the rooms,” he added. Said Carmen: “When you look out the bedroom window, it’s like being in a garden.”
The architect, for his part, seemed pleased when a visitor calls the courtyard the best room in the house. Although Myers would not disclose the budget of the Rogerses’ residence -- the 4,000-square-foot house has several high-end features that skew the cost of construction above the standard range -- the architect says that steel houses start at about $500 per square foot, which he says is comparable to the popular high-end housing types, including those he describes derisively as “terrible, Taco Bell Tuscan.” (The skyrocketing costs of construction materials may soon make that figure obsolete, however.)
“There’s two kinds of architecture right now,” says Myers, a man of strong opinions. “One is about making objects, the other is about making spaces,” he says, adding, “I’m interested in making spaces.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Steel is strong and sustainable
Why use steel instead of wood to build a house? The versatility of the material makes it attractive to architects and consumers for both aesthetic and structural reasons. And there’s less waste when using steel rather than wood.
Strength: The most obvious appeal of the material is its strength, which allows the same level of structural stability, or more, as a conventional wooden frame, using far less material. Steel can help minimize structural elements or achieve daring effects, such as Pierre Koenig’s famous Case Study House No. 22 of 1960, a vertigo-inducing structure suspended above Laurel Canyon by cantilevered steel beams.
Cost: Compared with wood framing, steel costs more, although architect Barton Myers says the comparison can be misleading and argues that home builders should look at the overall budget when comparing steel with wood. “Steel is competitive with high-end wood construction, when viewing the budget as a whole,” he says.
Speed of assembly: A skilled crew can frame a steel house in a comparatively short time, sometimes a few days. Although the Rogers’ house took about a year to build -- not much of a time savings over a conventional home -- Myers said he is working on a second house, this one in Santa Barbara, using prefabricated wall panels and windows, and expects to cut construction time to six months. A shorter construction time can translate into savings in labor costs.
Sustainability: Wood framing involves a large amount of waste: construction of a typical 2,000-square-foot house generates 3,000 pounds of unused wood, or about a quarter of the project’s total waste stream, according to the National Assn. of Homebuilders Research Center. In contrast, the individual parts of a steel frame can be prefabricated in a factory and assembled on-site with virtually no waste. Steel is also more sustainable than wood because the material can be recycled easily. Most of the steel on the market is, in fact, 60% recycled material. “The Rogers house is made out of recycled Buicks and Fords,” Myers says.
-- Morris Newman