Innovative solutions for creating healthy, efficient, eco-friendly homes

The Solar Umbrella

How do you turn a vintage Spanish-style bungalow in the design-savvy beach community of Venice, Calif., into a decidedly up-to-date family retreat? Quite simply, by looking to the past while incorporating the most innovative building techniques of the present.

That's what homeowners and architects Lawrence Scarpa and Angela Brooks did when updating their 650-sq.-ft., two-bedroom, one-bath residence, which was built in 1924. Searching for a place to call their own, Scarpa and Brooks were attracted to Venice, the community just west of Los Angeles that's best known for its canals, beaches and boardwalks, as well as lots of eclectic and innovative architecture. And that's where the couple uncovered their diamond in the rough.

The house hadn't been updated in decades and needed extensive remodeling and enlarging to accommodate Scarpa, Brooks and their son. Envisioning a home that both held to its roots and yet had a contemporary feel, the homeowners drew inspiration from an architectural jewel on the other side of the country.

Built in 1953, Paul Rudolph's Umbrella House, located in the Lido Shores section of Sarasota, Fla., got its name from a huge wooden trellis that once extended over the terrace and pool area of the 2,000-sq.-ft. modernistic dwelling. It provided the design cues Scarpa and Brooks needed to turn their California home into an architectural jewel of its own.


in Venice

After a carefully planned metamorphosis, which involved the addition of a high-tech glass, concrete and steel wing, the ordinary bungalow in Venice became a 1,900-sq.-ft., cutting-edge design, which Scarpa and Brooks dubbed the Solar Umbrella house. So innovative and sustainable was their design that it won a place on the American Institute of Architects' list of Top Ten Green Projects for 2006.

The property is situated on a 100-foot-deep lot with streets both front and rear. That gave Scarpa and Brooks the freedom to shift the orientation of the residence 180 degrees, so that the front of the home could face south. What was once the main entrance on the north side became the back of the new design.

Once they "flipped" the house, Scarpa and Brooks transformed the old backyard into a front entry courtyard. Visitors now enter through a steel gate and step into a gravel-bordered grass courtyard with a slightly raised, concrete luminous pool, where water cascades over the edge into an adjacent trough.

While the change in orientation enabled the homeowners to take advantage of abundant natural ventilation and to control the seasonal heat loss and gain, it was primarily made to optimize the home's exposure to southern California's sunlight. And where there's sunlight, there's energy to be converted into electricity with solar panels.

Taking Rudolph's trellis idea a step further, the couple installed solar panels secured to a steel-beamed canopy on the roofs of the house and the adjacent carport. These panels both shade the house from direct sun and, at the same time, generate electricity to run the house.

The rooftop solar energy system consists of 89 BP Solar amorphous photovoltaic panels, which provide the home with nearly 100 percent of the electricity it requires. The goal was to make the home "energy neutral," so that it generated as much energy as it used.

The system has a net-metered connection to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's grid. "We are building up credits during the day," Scarpa says, and buying power back at night. Within 10 to 12 years - and sooner if energy costs continue to spike - Scarpa and Brooks expect to break even financially on their solar investment.

The solar panels were just one far-reaching improvement made to the home. A solar water-heating system preheats domestic hot water and supplies hot water to a radiant floor heating system imbedded in the addition's concrete floors. A separate hot-water panel heats water for use in the pool.

See-Through House

Overall, about 60 percent of the project involved new building, while about 40 percent involved renovations made to the existing structure. At first, Scarpa and Brooks considered tearing down the original structure completely, but in the end decided to retain it. The original garage didn't fair as well, however. It was dismantled to make room for a smaller carport after the city granted a 13-foot variance for the task.

The Solar Umbrella House is a two-story structure in a neighborhood of primarily single-story residences. This could have caused some tense moments with neighbors when construction began, but happily that never happened. "No one objected," says Scarpa. "We tried to make [the house] more air than building. It really is a see-through house," with lots of glass and window walls to let in natural light.

Breaking ground in 2003, Scarpa and Brooks began by pouring a concrete tower that would become the "mast" for the 1,200-sq.-ft. addition to the original building. The back wall of the original structure was then peeled away to create an open front facade, into which the homeowners installed a retractable glass wall on the lower level. On pleasant days, the wall can be opened nearly the full width of the home, merging the indoor and outdoor living areas.

The completed structure includes a spacious living area joined to the rear of the original configuration, as well as a kitchen, dining room, study and second bedroom on the lower floor. Upstairs is a most unusual master suite that is cantilevered back without ever touching the roof of the older building. The master suite opens onto a 200-sq.-ft. shaded terrace.

In designing the home, Scarpa says he drew inspiration from his early years in Florida. In particular, he was influenced by designs that emphasized built-in natural air circulation and incorporated shaded porches, which are inherently energy efficient and sustainable.

Now a principal in the architectural firm of Pugh+Scarpa in Santa Monica, Scarpa explains that he became interested in eco-friendly issues while attending graduate school at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

"I was inspired by native dwellings and how they co-existed with nature," he says. "At the time, I didn't even know [that type of design] was sustainable or eco-friendly. For me it was a more romantic view of living with nature."

Green Umbrella

Many of the materials used in the Solar Umbrella house were either recycled content or reclaimed from other projects or buildings. For instance, the suede-look interior walls are actually panels of a material called Homasote, an acoustical board made from recycled newspaper, sanded down and used as a finish material. In the kitchen, cabinets are made from Homasote and oriented strand board (OSB). OSB was also used for flooring in places where concrete was not used.

Typically, says Scarpa, the biggest drain on the electric bill is the refrigerator. But by choosing high-efficiency Energy Star appliances for the kitchen, he and Brooks were able to lessen that energy requirement. In addition, the dishwasher and a front-loading clothes washer both use less water than traditional models. Kitchen faucets, showerheads and toilets are low-flow fixtures.

The home's low-e windows are double-glazed and krypton-filled with stainless-steel spacers. Skylights in the kitchen and one of the bathrooms allow in natural light, help maintain privacy and provide ventilation.

For the landscaping, drought-tolerant native plants that require minimal maintenance were selected. For instance, says Scarpa, "We used buffalo grass that requires little water after it becomes established, along with Mexican sage, aloe vera plants, eucalyptus and different kinds of succulents." When water is needed, it's delivered through a drip irrigation system.

Rainwater is collected in an underground retention chamber that "percolates back into the ground instead of being dumped into the ocean," Scarpa notes. An overflow waters the plants and trees on the property, reducing the need for sprinklers.

Sustainable and Livable

During the remodeling process, Scarpa and Brooks used their home like an incubator to experiment with design and functional concepts, and to test ways to design on a much smaller footprint. But most of all, they strived to create a sustainable home that didn't compromise its modernistic visual appeal.

"An energy-hog building that everyone loves is more sustainable than a zero-energy building that no one likes," Scarpa points out. In other words, sustainable also has to be livable.

If you're thinking about building or remodeling an existing structure, the most important thing you can do is "orient the house properly to take advantage of the controlled lighting and to capture the breezes," says Scarpa. In addition, invest in insulation for the house, which is the most cost-effective move you can make, he points out. "It gives you the best bang for your dollars."

It also helps to think outside the box - a challenge Scarpa and Brooks seem to have excelled at when designing the Solar Umbrella house.