Sea Train House

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architectural firm

Office of Mobile Design

Jennifer Siegal

Los Angeles, California year

2003

When Richard Carlson, a Los Angeles developer who spends six months of the year traveling, decided to build a new house for himself, the last thing he had on his mind was green design. He wanted a home that would fit his recently single, semi-retired, globetrotting lifestyle. He also wanted to use up some of the materials lying around the East Los Angeles salvage yard where his family-owned construction firm stored old equipment and other random objects. "I wasn't thinking about sustainable architecture at all," he says. "It just made sense to build with what's here and to use the industrial materials I've known and worked with all my life."

The result is a hidden patch of emerald rainforest in the middle of one of the most industrial neighborhoods of downtown Los Angeles—and even more surprising, one of the more ecologically sensitive houses constructed in the United States in recent years. The reason is simple: the home is almost completely recycled. Nearly all of the structural elements in the 2,6oo-square-foot house were already on site.

The vision for the project was partly Carlson's and partly that of his architect, Jennifer Siegal, a devotee of sustainable construction methods and ofbuildings on wheels who also has some rather unconventional ideas about houses—for example, she dislikes "the idea of walls." Carlson and Siegal met in the late-iggos, when Siegal was earning her degree at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and living in the Brewery loft complex, which is directly across the street from Carlson's new house. Carlson and his father had developed the lofts, turning a former Pabst Blue Ribbon building into artists' live-work studios. "They gave me a lot of free materials," says Siegal, who founded her own firm, Office of Mobile Design (OMD), to develop dynamic structures that rest lightly upon the land. "The first thing they donated was a trailer. That was

^ 11 Wedged in between a scrap metal yard and an industrial building in a gritty section of downtown L.A., the lush, tropical garden fronting the Sea Train house appears like an oasis behind the property's decidedly urban front gate.

the beginning of a conversation we had around recycled materials."

Carlson decided to live next to the lofts, which he manages, because he did not want to waste time on a commute. He earmarked a 50-by-200-foot strip of the facing blacktop lot for his soon-to-be built home. The site is bounded on one side by the rear wall of a light-industrial factory. He surrounded the other exposures with a 12-foot-high wall of giant steel slabs. From the street, the front gate's rusty surface looks menacing—privacy and security were important considerations— but it also evokes the austere beauty of a Richard Serrasculpture.

Nothing prepares the visitor for what lies within. The house, which is located at the rear of the property, is completely eclipsed by a lush and pungent garden that appears like an oasis behind the big steel gate. To get to the front door, one must pass around a nasturtium-covered berm, then walk along a winding path next to an 85-foot-long stream and a waterfall (which uses recycled water) and hundreds of varieties of plants that Carlson, a lover of the tropics, has imported from all over the world. The flowers and shrubs attract colorful butterflies and dragonflies year-round. Hiding in the vegetation are families of tropical turtles and firebelly toads, two iguanas, and several chameleons. Wildly varied, the garden, which was designed by James Stone, insulates the house from its jarring environment.

Carlson wanted to reuse the metal containers that had been sitting in his storage yard for years. It was partly about saving money and partly about his "love affair with industrial materials," he says. The generic, 40-foot-long by g-foot-high seagoing containers can be purchased for $1,500 each. (The industry is moving to 53-foot-long containers, so the old ones are classified as juni.) The idea was to stack two on either end of the house, put a roof above them, and create a central living space in between.

It was Siegal's first full-scale residential project. Carlson acted as general contractor and, according

Various Ponds Residential Project

^ The exterior fish pond, set off to one side of the garden, is made from a salvaged produce trailer.

•T Lit up at night, the house resembles an exaggerated box lantern, glowing brightly at the end of the long garden path.

^ The exterior fish pond, set off to one side of the garden, is made from a salvaged produce trailer.

•T Lit up at night, the house resembles an exaggerated box lantern, glowing brightly at the end of the long garden path.

to Siegal, "he made it very, very clear from the beginning that the project would be about the client, not about the architect." This meant that he wasn't after an architectural statement, but a place that would be tailored to his needs. "I knew I wanted an uncluttered, minimalist space," he explains, but in the end, "Jennifer came up with all the shapes." She also gave the project a level of polish that belies its industrial roots as scrap metal and shipping containers.

The house, which took three months to build and sits three feet above the ground on reclaimed earth, is a simple arrangement of steel-and-glass volumes. The central living space is separated from the garden by an expansive glass wall. The slanted roof is supported by two massive, inverted steel beams. The crossbeams are made of recycled Douglas fir from a local construction site (the bedecking for the ceilings is also recycled). The roof insulation, which Carlson helped to devise, circulates cool air via narrow shafts from the shady lower section of the roof up toward the exposed higher end.

Siegal and OMD senior designer Kelly Bair sliced open, extended, and connected the shipping containers to form a unified house with a series of clearly designated functions. Each of the original trailers had its own architectural program. The master bedroom falls under the roof's highest section, connected to a sky-lit bathroom. Underneath is a media room and library. On the opposite side of the house, the top container functions as an office and lounge while the bottom one houses mechanical units, a guest bathroom, and a laundry room. Translucent sliding doors oflaminated glass separate the upper-level spaces. Carlson's friend David Mocarski, principal of design firm Arkkit Forms and a professor at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, designed all the custom cabinetry and chose the interior colors throughout the house.

The defining feature of the main living-kitchen-dining area is a waterfall by Rik Jones of Liquid

Works that supplies recycled water to an indoor fountain, home to a school of ornamental koi and Chinese carp. Carlson wanted it for climate control (he prefers a humid atmosphere to the typically dry desert air of downtown Los Angeles), but it also creates a visual anchor that pulls the house together. The pool, and its counterpart in the garden on the other side of the glass facade, are made from recycled produce trailers, also from Carlson's yard. He had the wheels taken off and added layers of epoxy insulation before sinking it into the cherry-wood floor of the living room.

Carlson is a tidy man who travels a lot, so the place looks impeccably clean. The Zen simplicity of the interior forms a perfect complement to the ethic of practical yet beautiful sustainability that inspired the structure in the first place. "Everything was here already," Carlson says. "What Jennifer and I did was figure out a way toleanitaU together."

ADAPTIVE RE-USE OF MATERIALS The house's structural elements are old sea-going storage containers, some of which had been on site before the project began.

NATURAL LIGHT With a glass curtain-wall facade and strategically placed exposures on the side and rear elevations, the house uses nothing but natural light during the day.

RECLAIMED WOOD The massive Douglas fir crossbeams, which support the cantilevered roof, were reclaimed from a nearby construction site.

»NATURAL MICROCLIMATE The lush front garden, which includes a stream fed by recycled water, generates cool breezes and fresh air, both of which are lacking in Sea Train's asphalt-covered neighborhood.

Seatrain House

— The interior koi pond, made from an old trailer, is aligned with the exterior pool, creating the illusion of one continuous body of water.

i^i The front end of the master bedroom container was replaced with an arrangement of glass and steel that allows for ventilation and views of the garden.

^ In the living room, a 15-foot-high flagstone waterfall that runs on recirculated water masks the stairwell leading to the master bedroom.

^ Elevated windows, pale gray slate, and banana-colored walls enhance the natural light in the minimalist bathroom.

Interior Drawing Perspective View

Interior Perspective Drawing

1 B-36 steel roof decking

2 Tapered steel beams

3 Recycledwoodjoists

4 Plate steel security wall

5 Tubesteelpergola

6 Aluminumframewindows

7 Salvage steel cladding

8 Seatrain storage containers

9 Cherrywoodflooring

10 Flagstonewaterwall

11 Recycledcarpet

12 Aluminum grain trailer koi pond,

13 Aluminum grain trailer koi pond,

interior exterior

Front Section flnOf

Second Floor Plan

Main Floor Plan

Main Floor Plan

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Responses

  • daniel
    When Richard Carlson a Los Angeles developer?
    8 years ago

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