Majestic Views, Modern Style

In fall 2001, the Leonard family was about to embark on a complete demolition and rebuild of their 1940s-built Hollywood Hills home. At the time they were temporarily living in New York, which created the ideal situation to rebuild their house while they were living elsewhere. As the events of that time unfolded, however, they wondered whether demolishing their only physical asset and rebuilding was the right decision.

“But,” says homeowner Josh Leonard, “we were too in love with the design of the new house, and somehow the idea of building something new, a step toward the future, seemed like the right thing to do even in light of world events. So we gave the go-ahead for the bankers and bulldozers to begin.”

The resulting home is only 4,000 sq. ft., but took two full years to build. The extremely steep, narrow and difficult-to-access lot, paired with strict foundation and building requirements, were the primary challenges faced by architect Steven Ehrlich and builder Horizon General Contractors.

The home’s lot provides some of the most amazing views in Los Angeles of mountains, water and skyline out the same window. Yet the house is sited perfectly so views are focused outward, and there is complete privacy from neighbors, despite the glass walls.

“This home is about two functions — living on the hill, and the amazing classic Hollywood Hills view,” Ehrlich says. “We used architecture as the means of how these functions are done.” This included careful editing and framing of the views so they are taken in but still allow privacy, and also the design philosophy of the home, which Ehrlich has coined Multicultural Modernism. This is a philosophy Ehrlich developed over the past three decades, and says it isn’t a design style as much as a guiding principle. It includes blending architectural features of many cultures and eras, yet espouses the use of modern materials. For this project, it means a lot of glass, cement and wood. There is also a focus on softening by bringing the dwellers outdoors instead of hiding them behind the glass panels.

“Our goal was view, view, view on both sides of the house and we definitely achieved that,” Leonard says. “We also wanted simplicity, clean lines and a peaceful, uncluttered environment.” This may be epitomized at the main corner of the home that faces L.A.’s twinkling lights. A frameless corner where window meets window without supports means nothing obstructs the panorama, and sets off the sleekness of the home. This corner was accomplished using corner-butted glass, which was mitered and held together using silicone.

While this side of the home is virtually entirely windows, the rest of the home’s exterior is brown coat stucco. Stucco traditionally is applied in three coats — scratch, brown and finish. The design team, however, decided to stay at the brown coat stage to accomplish a unique feel that is both modern and rustic.

Steep Approach

The home has three floors on account of the 45-degree hillside, and building codes in the Hollywood Hills involve complicated formulas that allow building only so high and so far out into the surrounding canyons. The entrance is in the middle, and all floors have a view across the front. Each floor features an outdoor living area; The middle entry-level floor features the public areas of the home, and has a courtyard that connects the outdoors with it and acts as an outdoor living room. The master suite occupies the top level of the home, which also features the roof terrace. This provides the most expansive views, and is also walled for privacy. The deck and hot tub on the ground level are extremely private by the nature of their site and landscaping.

While the privacy and views are the focal point of the home, these come at a price. “The site was very difficult to access,” says contractor Dan Andrews of Horizon General Contractors. “While this wasn’t a large project, hillside homes always present challenges. Exaggerated switchbacks on the way up to the home, a narrow road and difficulty parking meant we had to bring the materials up in more batches using smaller trucks,” he explains. The home features a large amount of exposed steel, which resulted in more welding in the field as material came up in pieces and was assembled on-site, requiring additional coordination and planning.

Laying the foundation was also a particular challenge due to the steep hillside. Los Angeles has strict regulations for foundations due to its history of landslides and earthquakes. This called for the use of four 25-ft. caissons and the construction of a concrete pile foundation using bench cutting, or horizontal and vertical cuts in the concrete to strengthen it. The added benefits of the concrete foundation include its ability to absorb heat in the winter and emit it during the summer. A passive solar strategy and overhang keep the home cool in winter.

Early in the project, the contractor and homeowner signed a preconstruction services contract to explore options for building out the home’s design based on factors such as price, timing and coordination. This was initiated at the end of Ehrlich’s design phase so the owner and contractor could collaborate on features of the home that could be value engineered. Andrews says about 75 percent of the projects they build have preconstruction contracts in place.

In this situation it was particularly useful given the owners were going to be on the opposite coast for the first half of the project. Planning and coordinating as much as possible with the design and build teams before the project was underway smoothed the process.

“Very early on, in the planning stages, we hired Dan Andrews from Horizon Contractors so that Dan, Steven Ehrlich and his talented staff of architects could work together smoothly,” Leonard explains. “Because Dan Andrews was in on the process from the beginning, there were very few conflicts between the design/build teams and we always felt we were all on the same page.” Weekly on-site meetings with all teams, and daily meetings between contractor and project architect kept communication open. The home turned out so well, it was featured on California’s Ca-Boom Design and Architecture Tour in 2006 (caboomshow.com).

Distant Clients

Because the homeowners were so far away, Andrews e-mailed pictures of the project on a daily basis so the Leonards could see progress. They even picked out many of the finishes for the home from a distance based on the pictures he sent. All in all, the distance didn’t prove to be a problem. Andrews claims the project was unique and successful because the clients were so wonderful. Ehrlich says this house epitomizes what contemporary design can achieve when you have open-minded clients.

Josh Leonard says it’s hard to say what the best part of the house is, “since we use it all. But my favorite is probably the deck above the garage or the deck off the living room where I can lounge in the sun almost every day of the year. Linda’s is probably the master suite which encompasses the entire third floor, especially her own bathroom. And then of course, whatever floor we are on, or whatever room we are in, there is always a fabulous view of green hills, cityscape, ocean and distant mountains, sometimes capped with snow. At night, the lights glimmer so dramatically, we can get by with just candles at dinner. Truly, a magnificent sight.”

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