By necessity, Jennifer Siegal was ahead of her time while studying as an architecture graduate student at SCI-ARC (Southern California Institute of Architecture) in 1994. She and her partner, Todd Erlandson, had to make a full-scale construction project.
“We were students and had no money, and to keep the budget really low we looked for salvaged materials like old shipping crates, old glass window panes and recast door handles.”
Their 8-by-8-foot building was so successful that Evan Kleinman, host of Good Food on KCRW and owner of Angeli Caffe on Melrose Avenue, purchased it to turn it into an outdoor part of her restaurant that she had at the school at the time.
The building also caught the eye of an administrator at Woodbury University in Burbank where Jennifer became an inaugural Julius Shulman Institute fellow. She still teaches, now at USC, a course sharing her innovative approaches to architecture.
She first took students to Tecate, Mexico to look at examples of “color” architecture, an ad hoc approach that involves using found objects and elements but putting them together in an aesthetically pleasing manner.
“The recycling component was present in all of my work at that time for economic reasons and also I was intrigued by the concept of rethinking materiality,” she says.
When Jennifer was living at the Brewery, a 300 loft live-work artist community in downtown Los Angeles, the owner, Richard Carlson, commissioned her to design his house across the street, from salvaged materials he had from other buildings. The majority of the home was comprised of shipping containers, grain trailers, steel and other recycled elements, plus large panels of glass to open up the space and let natural light stream through.
She says all of the containers used in the house were altered in surprising ways. Some were severed into separate pieces, while others were added onto, layered or wrapped, showing the myriad of design possibilities in repurposing these materials.
There are wrapped design elements throughout the house including a 12-foot-high steel plate fence that wraps around the entire site. At one point it lifts up, stretching to become a canopy that gives shade to the entrance, creating the feeling of the ground plane being tilted upward. Here, she says recycled materials are not just practical and cost effective, but they create a “unique, dramatic architectural vocabulary.”
“This project is, to a large extent, how my interest in this kind of material language grew,” she says. “I have since taken the ideas of recycling and brought them into a more contemporary approach to design — incorporating green materials and alternative energy systems.”
Jennifer purchased a modest 1920s stucco exterior California bungalow in Venice, which she gutted to create an open floor plan. Although the style is atypical from what she creates for her clients, the reuse concept is seen throughout. Huge glass doors that pivot in both directions to open the relationship from kitchen to garden came from a grocery store in East Los Angeles. A single woodstove heats the entire house.
Most of the furniture, such as a bookcase and large outdoor dining table made from 2-by-6-foot scrap lumber planks, was built from recycled materials. The bathroom windows and counter tops were made from recycled steel from a truck trailer and other projects. Her bed frame is also made from recycled steel.
The most prominent recycled piece is a 200-square foot steel and aluminum moving truck trailer (official name is drop frame trailer) that Jennifer craned in and attached to the back of her house. She sanded the original mahogany floor and gave it a clear finish. Insulation was added and the area serves as an indoor/outdoor yoga space and reading room. The doors were replaced with large panels of glass and it opens up to both the master bedroom and the garden.
She says her philosophy of the design and building emphasis is to think of the whole process of a project and to take advantage of opportunities to reinvent things that have already existed and give them a new life. For example, typically in construction when only 1 foot is used on a 2-by-4-foot sheet of plywood, the remaining part is thrown away, she explains.
“It is obvious that our Western culture produces a lot of material waste,” she says. “Buildings are not necessarily thought of in a holistic way in terms of design, production, manufacturing, building, habitation. The midsection of that — production and manufacturing where materials come into play — isn’t considered in the beginning of the thought process.”
A recipient of the 2010 Green Honor Award from Sunset-AIA Western Home Awards who has also received other recognition, Jennifer is acknowledged as a pioneer in prefab architecture.
“It’s been a continuous thread in my work — in the beginning a little rough and now more refined,” she says.
Her interest in architecture started in an unusual way. In 1998, while an academic at Woodbury University she did research in the world of mobility and portability and received a grant from Southern California Edison to help her students rethink portable classrooms. She said she went to factories to look at the portable classrooms industry and realized that type of building model might work well for residential homes.
She estimates that there is usually a 30 percent reduction in waste of materials in addition to the issue of human power. She notes that people working in the factories do more than drive from job site to job site each day and that inspections take place in the factory.
“There’s a lot more control and, I think, precision in a more staged environment,” she says.
Asked if prefab is part of a trend in returning to the assembly line of the Industrial Revolution, Jennifer cites two examples. She says she once toured a Hermann Miller plant and observed their “Aeron” chair (94 percent recyclable) produced that way, and that Toyota uses the term “just in time technology,” meaning that materials are ordered as they are needed, not stockpiled.
What is different now in prefab is the transition from the Sears Roebuck catalogue kit houses to high design and environmentally conscious housing, she said.