Little gap, big meaning

From a distance, Rock Row looks like your typical small-scale town-house development, but on closer inspection, the key difference is right there: between each unit, a tiny gap of air.

"The buildings don't share a common wall," said architect Kevin Wronske, who with brother Hardy was the developer of these 15 homes, set on half an acre in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of L.A. "There is five inches of space between each of them that is totally open."

During an earthquake, the spaces will allow the homes to move independently of one another, Wronske said. The gaps also mark the property lines. But perhaps most important, the 5-inch breaks between homes serve as sound insulation, lessening how much noise transfers from one unit to the next.

The development, one of several to take advantage of Los Angeles' small-lot subdivision code that allows for multiple houses set close together on what had been single parcels of land, went on the market with prices from $482,000 to $569,000. It included the first homes in Los Angeles under $500,000 to be LEED certified, the developers said, winning the U.S. Green Building Council's endorsement for green design and sustainable construction methods. Despite the weak real estate conditions, all 15 homes -- many of which are still under construction -- sold after fewer than four weeks on the market.

"I had looked at so many condos, but when I first walked into this place, I knew I had to get it," said Dyna Kau, 30, a graphic designer.

While other developers offered incentives such as granite countertops, Rock Row took a more progressive approach, she said. Countertops were eco-friendly Caesarstone. Appliances were low-energy and low-water Bosch models. When she moves into her unit in the fall, it will have solar panels.

Karen and John McKay bought their unit sight unseen. The retired couple was in Guatemala volunteering as teachers when Rock Row went on the market, so they sent their son and daughter-in-law to check it out.

"We loved that the builders were trying to do something good for the environment," said Karen, whose home is part of Rock Row's second phase, scheduled for completion in December or January.

Residents will own their own land, so they won't pay the kind of association dues typically incurred in condo buildings. In the future they theoretically could build something else on the site, though that seems unlikely, as each building already covers most of its respective lot and the contemporary design seems likely to satisfy residents for years to come. The streamlined cement-board exterior is punctuated on the outside with windows outlined in sleek metal casings.

"Aluminum windows are the trend, but they're terrible energy-wise," Wronske said. Vinyl windows are more energy efficient, so the architect used vinyl to earn LEED points.

"They're pretty ugly windows by themselves," Wronske said. "So we dressed them up with a galvanized sheet metal fringe. The metal also acts as a shade and keeps dirt off the windows. Everyone thinks they are custom windows."

The houses range from two-bedroom, two-bath with 1,310 square feet of living space in two stories to a three-story unit with three bedrooms and three bathrooms in 1,605 square feet. Ten-foot ceilings combined with honey-colored strand bamboo floors and recessed cove lights achieve a sense of spaciousness and openness.

"Because of the small-lot ordinance, we had people saying to us, 'Just jam as much you can into each space,' " Wronske said. In the end, the units benefited by keeping spaces open and the floor plan free-flowing.

Because the houses don't have yards, the design calls for rooftop gardens with low-water plants. Standard roofing material is covered with a 1-inch layer of fabric and a plastic egg crate-like plastic honeycomb on top that allows the water to drain. For additional outdoor space, dining rooms on the second floor open onto a patio.

"Since it's a small lot, you don't have much yard," Wronske said, "so it's all about bringing the outdoors up."

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