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[Blog] Heyday’s “Green” Homes: Rock Row to Buzz Court

Buzz Court /Heydey-la.com

Buzz Court /Heydey-la.com

Los Angeles housing developer The Heyday Partnership put its new project, Buzz Court, on the market less than two months ago. And now? Sold out. It must be a sign of the times — “green” architecture is as good as gold.

Buzz Court consists of six compact homes (1,580 to 1,930 square feet) on a single lot in Silver Lake, each certified by the U.S. Green Building Council for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design,” or simply “LEED.”

(By the way, you should know that LEED’s criteria are widely disputed. Starchitect Frank Gehry even called LEED “bogus stuff.” But most agree LEED is the best sustainability meter we have right now. Buzz Court is described as “LEED for Homes” certified. It’s also possible for projects to attain higher ratings within LEED — Silver, Gold, or Platinum. Lots of terminology here!)

Browse photos on Curbed L.A., and you’ll see a narrow white building wrapped in an unusual facade of thin, evenly spaced panels. On the project’s construction blog, architect Kevin Wronske explains that the facade is meant to resolve “the relationship between a private residence and a very public street.” He says it interrupts views into the house, while allowing residents to look out.

It is not the only innovative aspect of Buzz Court’s design. The project aims to minimize the use and waste of resources wherever possible — the goal of sustainability. Buyers, apparently, are responding. And Los Angeles is better for it.

I learned about Heyday when I wrote a case study of their previous project, Rock Row in Eagle Rock, for an amazing class on “Green Architecture” taught by LA Times critic Christopher Hawthorne. (Read the full paper below.) I was impressed that the project incorporated a range of green strategies without compromising aesthetics.

Rock Row and Buzz Court have a key element in common: L.A.’s Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance.  The code, created in 2005, allows architects to place multiple houses on a single land parcel, the better to lower home ownership costs. This move also boosts density, and thus sustainability.

Some argue that the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance just means developers can build more units and earn extra money. But Heyday seems to oppose that notion. “We don’t want to take over the world,” architect Kevin Wronske said in an interview with Slow House Studio.  “We just want to make good architecture that’s responsible.”

To learn more about Heydey’s sustainability savvy, keep reading.

Case Study: “Rock Row” by the Heyday Partnership

Originally written for Occidental College’s “Green Architecture” course taught by LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, Fall 2011.

Rock Row / heydey-la.com

Rock Row / heydey-la.com

In 2005, the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance was created with the aim of enabling “ownership of fee simple single family homes,” according to the Los Angeles City Planning Department.  It accomplished this by allowing architects to place multiple houses on a single land parcel.  At the same time the code achieved a different goal: sustainability.

Eagle Rock’s “Rock Row,” a collection of 15 houses designed and built by the Heyday Partnership in 2009, offers one example.  The project boasts 30 “green” strategies, including high density.  It was among the first in Los Angeles to benefit from the new ordinance.  With its Gold and Platinum LEED distinctions, “Rock Row” provides an ideal case study to understand the potential for building affordable houses that conserve energy while embodying high standards for aesthetics and livability.

The Heyday Partnership, founded in 2002, is unique in that it comprises both architect and developer.  Kevin Wronske, a LEED Accredited Professional, completed degrees at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and Harvard.  His brother, Hardy Wronske, studied engineering at the Unviersity of Michigan before getting a Masters in Real Estate from USC.  The firm has created projects in Echo Park, Lincoln Heights, Silver Lake and Eagle Rock.

Rock Row’s name refers to the Eagle Rock community as well as the concept of row-housing where a line of identical or similar houses share side-walls.  However, the Rock Row houses do not share walls, and are not condominiums.  They range from two-bedroom, two-bath units 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.  Each house has several patios located on roofs and landings.  The units fit together like puzzle pieces, affording privacy and outdoor living space.  The houses were described in the LA Times as “airy, modern spaces with elegant details.”

The prices range from $482,000 to $569,000.  According to the website, the average square foot cost of $364 is the median for the area.  But typical local houses are often 50-years-old and “built to lesser standards for energy use and structural requirements,” says the website.  The total construction cost was 5.9 million.

As for the buyer-audience, the Wronkses said that they “tend to be creative types who like the idea of living in architect-designed houses in a community committed to sustainability,” reported the New York Times.  Eagle Rock has become a hub for the creative class in recent years.  A 2009 New York Times article reported:

Over the last five to six years, Eagle Rock became the glamour girl of Northeast Los Angeles, a crescent where the asphalt jungle meets the foothills. The neighborhood of 35,000 or so has attracted screenwriters and composers, Web designers and animators, who labor on their laptops in cafes, discuss film projects at Friday night wine tastings, and let their children play with the handmade wooden toys in a Scandinavian-style coffee shop, Swork.

While some describe this trend as gentrification, the area is still house to a wide variety of ethnic and socioeconomic groups.  Single-family houses dominate, and most are Craftsman-style bungalows.

Rock Row is located on a half-acre lot on Yosemite Drive, a residential street that offers access between Eagle Rock Blvd. and Figueroa St. for a steady stream of cars and buses. Eagle Rock High School is down the road (less than half a mile away), and Occidental College just over a nearby hill (about a mile and a half to the front entrance).  Main commercial streets – Eagle Rock Blvd., Figueroa Ave., Colorado Blvd. and York Ave. – are within walking or cycling distance for the energetic, or just a few minutes’ drive.  The 81 Metro bus line runs from Hollywood to Altadena via Eagle Rock, with a stop on Yosemite just a half-block from Rock Row.

Rock Row’s major “green” feature was inspired by L.A.’s Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance. It has been described as an antidote to suburban sprawl, and a booster of density.  Density, many believe, is key to sustainability.  One of the tenets of green building is to use as little space as possible.  Having more people occupy a single space limits the impact on the environment.  As well, it encourages people to interact and share resources, fostering energy-efficiency and community.  As one of L.A.’s first projects to result from the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance, Rock Row played an important role in setting a high standard for sustainability.

Meanwhile, the code offers incentives for architects. According to Kevin Wronske, the permitting process and the insurance costs are similar to those for single family houses.  Additionally, there would be no issues with class action lawsuits, accessibility (in accordance with the American with Disabilities Act), subcontractors, “or other headaches,” the architect said.

Rock Row’s other green features relate directly to design and construction.  Overall, it surpasses California’s energy conservation standards – the most stringent in the country – by 21%, according to the project’s website.  Both passive and active strategies for heating and cooling attest to that.

Tour Rock Row…

The narrow, tall shape is intended to help hot air get sucked up and out through high windows and the whole house fan. Various elements block the roofs from excess solar heating:  Radiant barriers (reflective materials that reject heat rather than absorb it) reduce the cooling bill by 30%.  The use of white material instead of black tar cuts energy use by 20%.  Solar panels are designed to produce about 3,300 kilowatts of energy per year, contributing to about 75% of household electricity.  (Due to budgetary constraints, the Wronskes weren’t able to include solar panels as a standard feature.  Instead, they offered a special deal: Buyers who completed the transaction directly with the developer rather than an agent would have solar panels installed.  Eleven of the 15 chose this option.)

Plus, the panels block heat from entering the house.  To further manage energy use, residents can adjust their thermostat, turning it off when not at home.  The device displays a percentage representing how the house compares to a non-green one in terms of energy efficiency.

The windows represent another effort to regulate energy cost.  They are double-paned with a special coating to minimize the transfer of heat. (This makes them more soundproof, too.)

Other strategies boost energy efficiency while also creating healthy environments.  For example, the garages are equipped with exhaust fans to circulate and remove pollutants from car fumes.  These fans also help to cool down the cars, lowering the garage and house’s temperature.

Rock Row finds many ways to reduce water use.  Rain runoff filters into the ground on site rather than flowing into sewers en route to the ocean.  Water is heated instantly – only when needed.  In contrast, typical heaters keep 40 to 50 gallons of water hot at all times.  Dual-flush toilets use 0.6 or 1.1 gallons per flush.  This is low in comparison to the city standard of 1.6 gallons per flush, and a previous standard (in the 1980s) of 5 gallons.  Finally, the faucets use 30% less water than average.

While most of these strategies aren’t visibly obvious, others are.  The decks are made from recycled products – sawdust, recycled wood, and plastic bags.  Inside, the flooring is made of bamboo, an easily-renewed material.   Kitchen countertops contain recycled materials.  (And their production uses 97% recycled water.)  Strategically placed windows allow for peeks at surrounding trees and greenery, and for daylight illumination.

Three units feature succulent roof gardens. The plants soak up some solar energy (that otherwise would be absorbed by the roof), and catch rainfall.  Other landscaping around the property is drought-tolerant. The driveway is also a source of greenery.  Described as “grasscrete,” it comprises two narrow rows of concrete placed over a grass lawn. This strategy reduces reflective heat from the pavement and the grass absorbs runoff.  The area is also important because it’s Rock Row’s central feature – literally.  It is the first area of interaction for residents and guests.  Choosing grasscrete rather than pure concrete – representing a connection to nature – is significant.  Wronske said that the grasscrete “completely changes the feel of the project and softens the driveway physically and perceptually to make a pleasant common yard instead of a harsh utilitarian driveway.”

Rock Row / heydey-la.com

Rock Row / heydey-la.com

However, others weren’t impressed by the attempt to create a common green space.  Jack Burnett-Stuart, an Eagle Rock resident and architect, wrote on his blog, Zone 23, that “the central driveway is lifeless.”  In his opinion, the space “could have been activated, to provide some enticement for the inhabitants to linger there and even exchange words with their neighbors.”  He suggests the traditional California courtyard as a counter-example.  Instead, the Rock Row driveway encourages its residents to drive in an out without making personal connections.  In his words, Rock Row is a “depressingly asocial aggregation of bat cave dwellings.”

Burnett-Stuart also wishes the project had made a meaningful connection to the street. The buildings are set close to the sidewalk, separated only by a narrow ribbon of plants.  He suggests trees – such as the California sycamores that used to grow in the area – be planted between the buildings and sidewalk to add beauty and significance.

Each Rock Row house earned a LEED certification – either Gold or Platinum, the top two ratings awarded by the US Council for Green Building.  The buildings were among the first in L.A. selling for under $500,000 to earn LEED.  The high ratings give the project prestige.  Apparently, they have also encouraged Rock Row’s residents to practice sustainability.  One wrote in response to a survey from Heyday: “Didn’t know anything about LEED [when buying the house], but since learning about it, it caused us to change our daily behavior to decrease waste and energy.”

Of course, one must assess how Rock Row is functioning a couple of years after completion.  Wronske says “they have performed great.”  As an example, he says many owners report they don’t pay any Department of Water and Power expenses because solar panels generate energy and tight insulation help to retain heat.  Also, residents have said they use their air conditioning and heating systems far less than in previous houses, according to Wronske.

The range of green strategies seems impressive to me.  It appears to favor a holistic approach, considering the interaction among a variety of factors.  And, arguably, nothing has been sacrificed for livability.  If anything, green features such as patios with gardens (each unit has several) and sleek bamboo flooring improve quality of life.  And, while packed closely together, the houses preserve privacy.  Indeed, green-design and aesthetic beauty go hand-in-hand throughout the development, each bolstering the other.

Yet, questions remain:  How much will green strategies help?  In what ways?  And who will benefit?   Only seasoned architects and builders can analyze the long-term effects of Rock Row’s green strategies.  But common sense drives concerns about mitigating factors and inconveniences.  If the faucets use 30% less water than average, does it take three times as long to do the dishes?  Will people accustomed to using big wads of toilet paper need to flush twice?  If the garage exhaust fan is loud, won’t people just turn it off?  And can residents reliably turn off the air-conditioning or heat when they go to school or work?  Why is the grasscrete marred with patches of brown?  Also, will the proximity to a bus stop encourage public transportation?  Residents may find that it’s still easier to drive – after all, their cars are in an easy-access garage.  Finally, many of the project’s benefits are touted in terms of their cost savings.  But it’s unclear how that translates to the conservation of nature’s resources.

Ultimately, Rock Row advances the green architecture movement.  Perhaps most significantly, its compact houses encompass numerous green strategies without being too costly.  For the green movement to be more widely embraced, it needs to be practical and affordable.  And pleasant aesthetic qualities are crucial so that people are encouraged to embrace sustainable design.  In my opinion, Rock Row is not a case of “greenwashing” to earn LEED points.

Heyday’s next two projects also place multiple houses in one compact space.  They will be LEED certified.  Yet, there is a dilemma: How to build innovative green projects without over-building and using excessive resources?  The architect has a response.  “We don’t want to take over the world,” Wronske said in an interview with Slow House Studio.  “We just want to make good architecture that’s responsible.”

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