A Japanese-influenced remodel in Mar Vista brings the outdoors in

After living in Tokyo, Barton Corley and Mai Hirai were used to small spaces.

So when it came time to remodel their 1,100-square foot, three-bedroom, one-bath home in Mar Vista, they were more concerned with how they wanted to live with their daughters Leah, 4 and Enna, 8.

“When I first met them, they described to me how they lived in Japan, and it wasn’t specific,” says architect Talbot McLanahan, who spearheaded the modest remodeling project. “They didn’t tell me ‘We want our house to look like this.‘ It was more about how they wanted to live each day.”

The couple purchased the traditional home, which was advertised as a fixer, in 2009. Because the rooms were small and compartmentalized, they tore down the wall between the kitchen and living room and remodeled the kitchen.

The 1946 house before it was remodeled.
(Talbot McLanahan)

Years later, however, the interiors of the home still felt dark and confined, and the family grappled with feeling disconnected from the outdoors and the neighborhood they loved.

Homeowner Mai Hirai walks in the frontyard of her family's redesigned Mar Vista home. The home was redesigned by architect Talbot McLanahan. With the remodel done, landscaping will be the family's next task.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

After waiting years to remodel, the couple knew what they wanted: a formal dining room, a sunken gengkan room in the entry where shoes are removed, and an outdoor bathtub. “We take bathing seriously in Japan,” says Hirai.

As non-native Californians — Corley is from Missouri and Hirai was born and raised in Tokyo — the couple also knew that they wanted to take advantage of indoor-outdoor living.

“Our kids are constantly running in and out of the house,” adds Corley.

And at a time when their neighborhood is dotted with newer two-story modernist boxes, the couple did not want their new home to overwhelm the neighborhood.

Barton Corley and wife Mai Hirai spend time in the multipurpose room while daughters Leah, 4, left, and her sister Enna, 8, sit in the living room of their Mar Vista home.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

“We are seeing a lot of speculative development around here,” says McLanahan who lives nearby. “It’s refreshing to keep things one story.”

To open up the interiors, McLanahan removed the walls at the two corners of the house and extended the corners to create a dynamic roofline. She added 500 square feet, including a master bedroom extension in back, and a new master bathroom and outdoor soaking tub. At the front of the house, a new dining room now serves as a multipurpose room that can transition from dining to homework to play time.

It’s hard to hide on a corner lot, so McLanahan chose to embrace the location.

“Everything has to be beautiful from all sides on a corner lot,” she explains. “I wanted to call attention to the addition by tilting the roof up and providing a clerestory that allows light in during the day.”

Enna Corley, 8, left, and her sister Leah, 4, on the back porch of their Mar Vista home.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

McLanahan covered the exterior of the house with board and batten siding and painted it a gray-brown color by Benjamin Moore that appears to change according to the time of day — Dragon’s Breath. In the new master bathroom, McLanahan continued the exterior siding indoors to ease the abrupt transition from outdoors to inside.

Inside, industrial windows are installed high to provide privacy and give the house a warm glow when it is illuminated at night.

Western red cedar beams, widely used in Japan, are installed over the breakfast nook to highlight the home’s front window. The beams extend outside the window, which provides shade for the family’s occasional rice ball sales.

The new master bathroom is a testament to Japanese minimalism with a limited palette of wood, hand-poured concrete saddlebag sinks, white tile and plaster. Like a traditional Japanese bath, the outdoor tub is a straight shot from the indoor shower.

The new addition features an outdoor Japanese bathtub.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

But ultimately, the architect looks to nature, not tradition, as her guide.

“You can make such a difference just by adding coastal breezes and light,” says McLanahan, who grew up on the coast of Massachusetts.

“So much about living there was about the coastal breeze,” she explains. “If I didn’t have that smell, I felt like I was too far away from the water, and something wasn’t right.”

It was an instinct that inspired the Corley-Hirai remodel. (Next up for the family? Saving for the large landscaping job that lies ahead.)

“The first thing she did when she came to the house was sit quietly and observe the light and breeze,” says Corley. “That simple move has enhanced the way we live.”

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