A home, an office and a park demonstrate that design can be environmentally conscious — and look good

A view from one apartment building to another, where a person walks on a balcony.
The view from the Brooks + Scarpa-designed Rose Apartments, which combine density, passive ventilation, outdoor space and affordable housing on a small lot in Venice.
(Jeff Durkin / Brooks + Scarpa)

Facing a future of climate change will demand drastic changes in the ways that we live. It will also require equivalent changes in the way we design.

The energy it takes to construct buildings and power them accounted for 37% of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2021, according to a status report issued by the United Nations Environment Program last year. Homes and businesses not only need to be more efficiently built, they need to be designed to withstand environmental extremes. In Los Angeles, where drought has been an existential challenge from the beginning, capturing water and planting more resilient landscapes are critical.

These are big problems. But they are not without solutions. In this portfolio, The Times presents three case studies — a residence, a construction method and a park — that provide a window into how designers are (and have been) preparing for climate change.


Reinventing the court apartment

An aerial view of a white apartment structure centered around a raised outdoor courtyard
The Rose Apartments, designed by Brooks + Scarpa, bring important environmental design principles to affordable housing in Venice.
(Jeff Durkin / Brooks + Scarpa)


One day, the ideal Los Angeles home will be an apartment.

The single-family home — no matter how “eco” — feeds sprawl and car-dependent transit. This has led some architects to revisit a form of housing that once defined L.A. but faded over time due to rising parking mandates: the court apartment.

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Courts emerged early in the 20th century and generally consisted of modestly scaled apartments or bungalows laid out in a “U” around a shared garden courtyard. Pasadena’s Bowen Court, completed in 1911, and Santa Monica’s gracious Horatio West Court, designed by Modernist Irving Gill and completed in 1919, offered models of density that were pleasing, practical and inexpensive to build.

The concept is something Hawthorne-based Brooks + Scarpa Architects has resuscitated in fresh ways. In projects around L.A., the firm, which is led by Angela Brooks, Lawrence Scarpa and Jeff Huber, has produced a number of buildings that ditch the dreary double-load corridor of standard apartment buildings in favor of a single row of apartments arranged around a courtyard. This means every unit gets daylight and cross ventilation (reducing energy use) and all have direct access to the outdoors.

An aerial view shows an apartment courtyard with stepped seating covered in wood with planters bearing succulents.
The Rose Apartments are arranged around a central courtyard with stepped seating and plants.
(Jeff Durkin / Brooks + Scarpa)


A woman in a black dress and a man with a shaved head stand behind a table filled with architectural models
Angela Brooks and Lawrence Scarpa of Brooks + Scarpa in their Hawthorne studio.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Last year, Brooks + Scarpa completed the 35-unit Rose Mixed-Use Apartments for Venice Community Housing, a building that provides housing to foster youths in transition. It’s a building that addresses a pair of intersecting crises — housing and climate — and it does so in gracious ways.

The architects sunk the ground floor (which houses VCH’s offices) partly below grade so the building doesn’t loom over the neighborhood. Stacked over an elevated courtyard are three stories of units that all get breezy cross ventilation; the building is less than half a dozen blocks from the beach. Stormwater planters filter and hold rainwater along the building’s flanks. There is also a hookup for a solar array on the roof (though panels have not yet been added).

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Most significantly, the courtyard isn’t some austere, blank space. The architects created stepped seating sheathed in IPE deck tiles (a type of wood flooring) that is punctuated by planters. Along the street-facing edge, they added three rows of stepped plantings (devised by landscape architect Tina Chee), which serves as a buffer between the courtyard and the street. “The stepped planters also allow us to get rid of guardrails,” says Brooks, “which look very defensive.”


Roof gardens — critically — help mitigate the heat island effect.

A view through a window from a courtyard shows early-morning sun streaming into a residential dining area.
A view from the elevated courtyard of the Rose Apartments.
(Jeff Durkin / Brooks + Scarpa)

Other touches, such as energy-saving appliances and upgraded insulation, also help conserve. According to estimates calculated by the architects for the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on the Environment, the building is positioned to consume 71% less energy than benchmark code.

The Rose Apartments were designed as supportive housing and, therefore, the individual units, most of which are studios, are small — about 360 square feet. But in drawing inspiration from L.A.’s old courts, Brooks + Scarpa offer an attractive model for what density and climate-conscious design might look like in Los Angeles. The future doesn’t have to be dour, block-long podium apartments; it can be sunlight and fresh air.

“Back in the 1980s, it was called regionalism,” Brooks says. “It meant you design the building to fit the climate of the region. ... I feel like the world has finally caught up with that idea.”



Replacing concrete with wood

The facade of a four-story building is illuminated by sunlight, revealing wood supporting the floor plates.
The mixed-use structure at 843 N. Spring St. designed by Lever Architecture is one of the largest mass timber structures in Los Angeles.
(Paul Turang)

From a distance, the building under construction at 843 N. Spring St. in Chinatown might seem like many of the commercial structures popping up around L.A.: four stories of open-plan offices rise above ground-level retail spaces that one day will house restaurants and shops. But move in closer and you’ll find some surprising details‚ including a ground-level arcade dotted with rough tree ferns and a rooftop patio planted with foxtail agaves and purpletop vervain. What is most notable, however, is wood — which is everywhere.

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Look up and you’ll find that the building’s floor plates are partly supported by broad panels of mass timber, the generic term used to describe a variety of industrial, engineered woods. 843 N. Spring is part of a wave of such structures springing up around the United States. In Milwaukee, you can find a new 25-story mass timber residential tower, and a forestry college in Oregon now inhabits a pair of graceful mass timber buildings.

It may seem counterintuitive, but mass timber can match or exceed the strength of concrete and steel. Also counterintuitive: The material performs well in a fire. (In much the same way a large log will fail to ignite in a campfire, mass timber’s solidity is not conducive to rapid fire.) And, in fact, it has been subjected to a battery of testing both in the U.S. and abroad, including blast tests that have allowed for its use by the military.

Thomas Robinson, co-founder of Lever Architecture, a firm with offices in Portland, Ore., and L.A. that has helped pioneer the use of mass timber in the U.S., says, “It’s very different from what you buy at Home Depot.”


A staircase descents into an open-air arcade planted with half a dozen rough tree ferns.
An atrium features landscape design by James Corner Field Operations.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

A man in a black suit stands on a deck of a building under construction, an elevated Metro stop visible in the distance.
Thomas Robinson is a co-founder of Lever Architecture, which is known for its mass timber projects.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Among Lever’s projects are mass timber buildings for Adidas and the Oregon Conservation Center in Portland. The team is also behind the thoughtful design at 843 N. Spring, which includes landscape design by James Corner Field Operations (the studio behind the remarkable Tongva Park in Santa Monica).

At the moment, 843 N. Spring is probably the largest structure employing mass timber in Los Angeles, though it could soon be outdone by a mixed-use development at the border of Culver City and West Adams designed by Shop Architects. Whatever its scale, the building is an intriguing example of the possibilities of the material.

Trees, for one, sequester carbon, and unlike concrete and steel they don’t require intensive fabrication processes — they just grow. A study published in 2019 in the Journal of Building Engineering, which examined the use of mass timber from harvest to construction, found an average reduction of 26.5% in global warming potential. Mass timber is also produced in prefab panels, which means it can be milled to the specific dimensions of a project, thereby limiting waste, staging and construction times. If a mass timber building is torn down, wood can be reused. Concrete is not nearly as flexible: When it meets the wrecking ball, it generally ends up as landfill.


An empty loft office space is lined with ceiling made from large boards of mass timber
Mass timber was used in the floorplates of a hybrid structure in L.A.’s Chinatown for L.A. developer Redcar.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Shrubs and trees planted on a rooftop frame a view of City Hall in downtown Los Angeles
A view of City Hall from the rooftop at 843 N. Spring St., which features landscape design by James Corner Field Operations.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Certainly, just because it’s wood doesn’t make it environmental. Clear-cutting, for example, is devastating to local ecologies. “Part of our job is to ask the right questions,” Robinson says. “You’re really trying to identify forests that are managed in a way that really thinks about sustainable forest practices for the long term.”

Lever prefers wood that has received sustainability certifications from the Forest Stewardship Council, which includes the timber used in the Spring Street project. Transport to the site is also key. Wood for the building was harvested in British Columbia and transferred to L.A. by ship, which is less carbon intensive than trucking it in overland.

The Spring Street building is a hybrid structure, meaning it still employs steel and concrete. But this is mitigated by other elements in the design.

Downtown Los Angeles is visible beyond an elevated metro station and a four-story commercial building in the foreground.
843 N. Spring St., in the foreground at right, is next to the Chinatown Metro station.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)


Rather than tear out the vacant big-box store that inhabited the site, the architects built on top of it, thereby avoiding additional emissions and demolition waste. In the existing underground lot, they added stacked parking, which made room for additional cars without more digging, and — more important — added generous bicycle storage. (The building practically sits on top of the Chinatown stop of the A Line, making it an ideal hub for multimodal transit.) Unusual for a commercial building, the design also prioritizes fresh air: Each unit has operable windows and sliding doors that allow for passive ventilation.

No building can be carbon-zero — construction consumes resources. But the process can be far less carbon intensive. And, as 843 N. Spring also proves, it can look really good.


A park for the 21st century

An aerial view shows a mountaintop that has been carved into wide steps with scrubby grass growing on its surface.
A bird’s-eye view of a former landfill in Puente Hills that will be converted into a park — a site for recreation and habitat restoration.

A rendering shows an aerial view of the Puente Hills Landfill with labels marking amenities like trails and picnic areas
A rendering prepared by Studio-MLA shows how the Puente Hills Landfill can be reimagined as a park. It includes a bicycle skills area at bottom left and a winding, ADA-accessible path that leads to the summit of Nike Hill, center right.

Imagine a hilly Southern California landscape about a third the size of Griffith Park. Now imagine stuffing that landscape full of garbage for 56 years. That is the story of the westernmost edge of the Puente Hills in the San Gabriel Valley, where, for decades, roughly a third of L.A. County’s trash was deposited. The landfill was shut down in 2013, and this highly engineered mountaintop — which on a clear day offers views of downtown L.A., the San Gabriel Mountains and the northern reaches of Orange County — is now slated to become the first new regional county park in three decades: the Puente Hills Landfill Park.

The park will not be the first to be built on a landfill. Notable landfill parks include the wonderfully named Mount Trashmore in Virginia Beach, Va., and Cesar Chávez Park on the Berkeley waterfront. Currently, the Freshkills Landfill on New York’s Staten Island is in the process of being converted into a park. Closer to home, the South Coast Botanical Garden in Palos Verdes also sits on landfill.


Three people — two women and one man — stand at the top of a scrubby hill that overlooks the San Gabriel Valley
County parks Director Norma Edith García-Gonzalez, Studio-MLA’s Mia Lehrer and David Diaz Avelar of ActiveSGV stand atop Nike Hill in the future Puente Hills Landfill Park.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

An aerial view reveals terraces carved into a scrubby hilltop. The San Gabriel Valley is visible in the distance.
Park features, which are being designed in consultation with area communities, could one day include a nature play area and a dog run, as well as trails for hikers and horseback riders.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

But Puente Hills is in a position to benefit from decades of research into more effectively restoring these degraded landscapes.

The use of drip irrigation and reclaimed water, for example, has grown more sophisticated, as has the attention to what is planted in public parks. “The knowledge base and availability of native plant material is much greater now,” says Mia Lehrer, founder of Studio-MLA, the L.A.-based landscape architecture firm that is working with Los Angeles County’s Department of Parks and Recreation and the neighboring San Gabriel Valley communities to determine what features will be implemented at the site. “There are nurseries that grow native grasses, that grow chaparral plants. Even conventional nurseries understand that all of these plants make a difference and matter.”

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Puente Hillls isn’t simply an opportunity to create a pleasant green space. It’s an opportunity to restore vital habitat. As she leads me up a hillside on a hazy morning in June, Lehrer points to the eucalyptus trees that cover the landfill’s western slopes — trees that are not only an invasive species, but also represent a fire hazard. Lehrer hopes to replace eucalyptus with native species such as oak. “It would create an important biomass,” she says, “and help local bird species.”

A rendering shows an aerial view of the Puente Hills Landfill as a park, the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance.
A rendering provides a glimpse of what the Puente Hills Landfill might look like as a park — with trails for running, walking and horseback riding.

Puente Hills also represents an opportunity to design a park not in a top-down fashion, but in a way that truly engages the surrounding communities — communities that have suffered through decades of rumbling garbage trucks, vermin infestations and infernal smells as a result of the dump. “The climate crisis has made it urgent to think about this in an integrated way,” says David Diaz Avelar, director of ActiveSGV, an equity and mobility advocacy group based in neighboring El Monte. It’s about “water capture, green space development, habitat restoration, workforce development and environmental justice in park-poor areas.”

Designers from Studio-MLA have been meeting regularly with a group of students from three area high schools, for whom this will be a hands-on learning experience in environmental stewardship and landscape design. As the design process moves forward, the Studio-MLA team also hopes to involve students from neighboring Rio Hondo College. Says Lehrer: “We want to try to build that sense of ownership and commitment on the part of the community.”

Two women standing at the top of a scrubby hill are framed by the branches of a tree.
Landscape designer Mia Lehrer, left, and Los Angeles County parks Director Norma Edith Garcia-Gonzalez survey the Puente Hills site.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)


The outreach is giving shape to a design that will be very different from what might have been executed in the 1970s, when some of the bigger landfill parks first began to emerge. Earlier this month, the team at Studio-MLA presented publicly for the first time a preliminary design concept for the first phase of the project, which will cover 142 acres and is set to break ground in 2025. It includes horse trails for a local community of vaqueros as well as an ADA-compliant ramp that will lead to the top of Nike Hill, a popular viewpoint. In addition to open meadows for events and passive recreation, a ceremonial space for local Indigenous communities is being proposed.

Norma Edith García-Gonzalez, director of the Los Angeles County parks department, says the project is exciting for all that it represents — socially and environmentally. “We have to preserve pristine land, but in an urban area where people reside — especially Black and brown people — we also need to restore,” she says. “It’s an act of healing.”

Ask a Reporter: Inside the project

What: Times reporters Rosanna Xia and Sammy Roth will discuss “Our Climate Change Challenge” during a live streaming conversation. City Editor Maria L. LaGanga moderates.

When: Sept. 19 at 6 p.m. Pacific.

Where: This free event will be live streaming. Sign up on Eventbrite for watch links and to share your questions and comments.

VIDEO | 05:55
LA Times Today: A home, an office and a park demonstrate that design can be environmentally conscious — and look good

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