Top Flight: A complex explores siting and massing to downplay density and elevate quality of life.
Architects & Firms
In housing-strapped Los Angeles, city officials are counting on multifamily developments, as well as small-lot single-family homes, to boost capacity and stabilize soaring prices. But most developers squeeze as many units as possible onto sites to maximize profits, giving no thought to aesthetics, common areas, or context. The resulting eyesores have ranged from forgettable to out of place to outright offensive, and often they exacerbate local traffic and parking problems. Not surprisingly, they’ve soured many Angelenos on the very idea of higher-density housing.
Blackbirds is a refreshing departure from the norm. Local architect Barbara Bestor designed this crisp and cheerful cluster of small-lot houses—which can be built with minimal setbacks, on lot sizes as small as 600 square feet—in Echo Park, one of L.A.’s oldest neighborhoods, using a strategy she calls “stealth density.” Her meticulous attention to siting and massing makes the 18-home development appear much less dense than it actually is, while also carving out shared and private outdoor spaces and minimizing street impacts—all this on a signature hilltop location with panoramic views of downtown L.A. and distant mountain peaks.
It could easily have turned out otherwise. A half-dozen crumbling rental homes once stood on the 0.82-acre site, all owned by the same landlord, who’d planned to raze them to make way for an unremarkable 25-unit condo building. Instead, L.A. developer LocalConstruct bought the property, envisioning a collection of market-rate residences of modest size that would form its own community and also mesh with the surrounding single- and multifamily homes on Echo Park’s famously steep, narrow streets. This neighborhood-within-a-neighborhood approach has become the developer’s calling card in this city and beyond. “LocalConstruct saw Blackbirds as a legacy project, so design quality was important to them,” says Bestor, a former Echo Park resident known for her custom houses and commercial spaces. After interviewing a handful of local candidates, the developer tapped her in 2011 to design the residences, inside and out.
The project was Bestor’s first commission from a developer and her first multiunit housing community. Right away she saw that the spectacular site would put her skills to the test: the hilltop slopes away from its apex in many directions, and at different angles and rates. She exploited every square foot of this difficult topography to its advantage, pushing the two- and three-story townhouse-like homes to the perimeter of the lot to make way for a central landscaped plaza. “The site plan became the organizing principle for the project,” she explains, as each unit’s public spaces were oriented to open onto this communal area, while bedrooms and private spaces snag city or mountain views, depending on their orientation.
The plaza also doubles as a parking court, since only six of the 18 houses have two-car garages. “L.A. codes require two parking spots per single-family house, but leaving some parking uncovered got us a lot more space for common use here,” Bestor notes. Landscape architect Mia Lehrer softened the hardscaping with native and drought-tolerant plantings, and varied the concrete pavement’s surface finish to visually distinguish the central courtyard, parking spaces, and walkways, a subtle space-defining technique that registers on an almost subliminal level. A parking area may seem like an unlikely place for residents to socialize, but it’s usually only about half full, leaving plenty of room for informal barbecues. One-car households are common at Blackbirds, thanks to greater reliance on biking, public transit (there’s a bus stop nearby), and ride-sharing services such as Uber.
And none of the two-car garages open directly into the houses but require a quick walk outdoors to each main entry, a move made palatable by L.A.’s forgiving climate. “Since the idea behind Blackbirds was to build community, we didn’t want neighbors to just disappear inside,” says Bestor.
The differentiated forms, massing, and cladding of the dwellings help them look cohesive but not cookie-cutter. Three houses stand alone at streetside, next to the plaza entry, while the rest are grouped to look like what could be two-family houses until you get up close to them. (The units are actually separated by 6-inch gaps, which are obscured by flashing that matches the white metal or black fiber-cement siding.) The white triplex unit along the site’s northern edge, which is higher in elevation than the southern one, is topped by a simpler shed roof. “We designed it as a ‘Phase 2’ project in case it couldn’t get built this time around,” Bestor notes. It was she who coined the development’s name early in the project, noting that the angles of the black peaked roofs recall birds in flight.
All this finessing took much more effort than the average plug-and-play housing development. “I wish more of the floor plans could have been standardized,” Bestor remarks dryly. But the complicated topography made repetition nearly impossible; in many cases, floor plates for adjacent units don’t even sit at the same grade. She also made tweaks for the middle triplex units, since they have less glazing and fewer windows.
The interiors are hardly gargantuan, ranging in size from 1,360 to 1,930 square feet for two or three bedrooms. But soaring ceilings, ample skylights, and glass-backed built-in bookcases that form one wall of the staircases make them feel much larger. A sense of simple luxury also emerges from the stripped-down material palette of concrete, tile, wood, and glass, and from a handful of upscale touches like Carrara marble countertops and lighting fixtures by Brendan Ravenhill. All houses have at least one type of outdoor space, such as a small front patio or a cantilevered roof deck.
Blackbirds sold briskly after its 2015 opening, with sales prices ranging from $795,000 to $1.05 million—much higher than anticipated at the outset. But that’s the market in Echo Park these days; its vibrant restaurant and retail scene and its proximity to a booming downtown have made it one of L.A.’s most coveted places to live. And not-in-my-backyard fears expressed by a handful of neighbors that the project would clog their streets have not materialized. “We could have built more homes on the site, but doing so would have caused too much traffic,” Bestor says. No single development in L.A. can fix its housing shortage or sky-high home prices, but Blackbirds proves that higher-density housing can be distinctive, contextual, low-impact, and profitable. “Buyers here paid a premium for well-thought-out spaces,” says Bestor. “Investing in design, as LocalConstruct did, is a worthwhile effort.” With any luck, future projects in L.A. will follow its lead.
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Barbara Bestor, AIA
Structural Engineer: Nishkian Chamberlain
Landscape: Mia Lehrer + Associates
Pacific Empire Builders
Laure Joliet and Iwan Baan
type v wood and steel frame
Masonry: board formed concrete at lower floors and guard walls
Metal panels: Custom standing seam metal panels by Titan Sheet Metal with Carlisle underlayment
Other cladding unique to this project: Hardie Plank and Hardie Panel cement fiber cladding
Metal: Custom Standing seam metal panels by Titan Sheet Metal with Carlisle underlayment
Tile/shingles: Owings Corning asphalt shingle
Metal frame: Arcadia commercial grade fixed, sliding and awning windows
Skylights: self flashing aluminum framed skylights by Solar Industries
Other: glass railing CRLaurence base shoe
Wood doors: solid core wood swing doors
Sliding doors: Arcadia aluminum commercial grade sliding doors
Locksets: Cal – Royal
Other special hardware: CRLaurence glass clamps at showers
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: custom douglas fir millwork and paint grade millwork. custom bookshelves at stairs.
Paints and stains: Benjamin Moore paint, Minwax Polyurethane
Plastic laminate: Nevamar Plam countertops at kitchen islands
Solid surfacing: Corian countertops and benches at bathroom
Special surfacing: Carrera marble counter tops at kitchens
Floor and wall tile: American Universal floor tile at showers and Daltile wall tile at showers.
Special interior finishes unique to this project: polished concrete floors at ground floor. oak floors at upper floors and stairs.
Downlights: Lithonia LED recessed downlights
Custom Pendants: Brendan Ravenhill
Toto toilets, Kohler & Hastings sinks, Hansgrohe fixtures, Rohl kitchen sink
Energy management or building automation system:Nest Thermostats