Eleven years ago, Larry Scarpa and Angela Brooks, architects with the firm of Pugh + Scarpa, purchased a lot with a small bungalow on it which would become an example of architecture representing the pulse of “green” building.
Their inspiration was Paul Rudolph’s “Umbrella House,” built in 1953 in Sarasota, Florida, whose original design featured a large wooden trellis over the house to shield it from the hot sun.
Five decades later Larry and Angela updated the concept to incorporate sustainable design in a canopy or umbrella as an-energy producing system.
A bold display of solar panels wrapping around the south elevation and roof becomes the defining formal expression of the residence.
The biggest challenge was to overcome the substantial year-round temperature differential between night and day.
Thermal “heat sinks” (capable of absorbing heat) are strategically placed in the floor and walls to capture the sun’s energy during the day and release it at night.
“It’s a perfect climate here to do that, because it’s cold at night and hot and sunny during the day,” says Angela. “The sun in the winter is lower, so it comes in further and heats up the floor more and radiates the heat inside the house at night.
“When the sun is higher in the sky in the summer, there’s less sunlight that comes in. So there’s less heat radiated during the day.”
The original 650-square-foot house was in “tear-down” condition. Retaining the structure set the stage for using recycled and sustainable materials.
It was remodeled and added onto with tilt-up concrete and an operable glass wall to become a two-story airy and light home.
A lot of research and experimentation went into the creation of the final product.
Although the plan was for a rigid geometric building, there was still a desire for an element of softness. This was accomplished in quite an unusual way.
Industrial broom bristles are part of the design while also functioning as a privacy screen for the bedroom. But they are not ordinary store-bought brooms.
“We first started out with a regular broom from a hardware store,” says Larry. “We found the manufacturer and repeatedly called to ask how do you do this and how do you do this. The next thing you know, the owner of the company called us.
“I think he sensed industrial espionage. He flew in from Michigan to see what we were doing and offered to retool his machinery and give us a choice of options. He wound up helping me design the building.”
Larry and Angela have been known to use common objects such as Dixie Cups and soda cans in their designs.
“We try to look in front of our face to find something extraordinary in ordinary things,” says Larry.
A case in point is the bathroom wall.
“We investigated glass chips, Ping-Pong balls and marbles,” says Angela. “We discovered that marbles were too heavy. If you put them between two pieces of glass, the glass bows out.”
Instead, they used small plastic balls intended to clean up oil spills, which let light into the bathroom as well as add variety and texture to the wall.
“It actually changes the color of the bathroom at night with the lights on,” says Angela. “It glows green and the balls are really highlighted.”
The wall looks like a piece of art. Also aesthetically pleasing is the lighting.
“Most people look at lighting as a uniform mechanical foot-candle type of thing,” says Larry. “We make it so that it’s more like hot spots — groups or pools of lighting so it’s not even. We treat the lighting sculpturally.”
It’s especially effective at night. Almost 20 years ago, Larry and Angela first used OSB (oriented strand board), a paneled wood, to make cabinets.
“Our cabinetmaker said, ‘Oh, you can’t make cabinets out of that material. They’ll fall apart,'” says Larry. “We made some ourselves and showed him how to do it.
“I got calls from tons of other architects asking, ‘Where did you get that? All the stuff we can find has big flakes and is really ugly.’ The truth is that it was the same junk they saw. We just sanded it. You take the top layer off and get this beautiful core. It’s a material that is common, that’s readily available. All you have to do is stop for a minute to look at it to see the potential beauty in it.”
The Umbrella House is a rich collage of interlocking spaces using recycled and sustainable materials in unconventional ways with a holistic approach to energy and environmental design.
It has also become an educational focal point for sustainable design.
Tours and events have been held at the house for other architects, design professionals, contractors, community organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club, the Venice Community Housing Corporation and the Venice Family Clinic, and institutions such as the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Decorative Arts Council.
Since its completion in 2005, more than 1,000 people have visited the Umbrella House.
The goal was to create beautiful, low-maintenance, high-quality architecture that is sustainable.
Although his home has garnered considerable attention, Larry thinks that sustainability isn’t something that should be championed.
“It’s just something you should do,” he says. “There’s no article written about — ‘Oh, that’s a great building. It’s handicapped-accessible.’ It’s something that should be done. It’s not something really to be celebrated.
“More to the point, it’s not a paradigm for architecture or design. It’s just a layer of what you do. What is a big concern to me is that architects now use it as a concept for design. Oh, here it is. It is going to be a world-class sustainable building. But, that’s not a concept. You have to design for people first.
“I would argue that a building which is an energy hog that everyone loves, is more sustainable than a zero energy building that nobody likes. We shun the idea of making it the focus.
“Oh, and by the way, the house only has a $500 yearly energy bill. I think it should be in a law in the code that you need to make buildings energy efficient and then no one would make a big deal about it.”