There are any number of reasons to envy Ryan Burns and his wife, Aline Nakashima. One is the good looks that have made both of them very successful models—Burns for the Ford Agency and Nakashima in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, among other high-profile venues. Another is their sheer niceness, so genuine it's almost shocking.
But there is also their house, which might trump both perfect cheekbones and amiability. Perched on a ridge under the Hollywood sign, not far from the Griffith Observatory and adjacent to a publicly owned ravine that will never be built on, it has been remade by Los Angeles firm XTEN Architecture as a case study of compact glamour. Called Nakahouse, after Nakashima, it has unrivaled views and a sleek all-white interior. But at 1,890 square feet, it is superefficient, packing a remarkably complex spatial experience into a small container. The place feels as though it could be folded up and slipped into your pocket.
Burns came to the door of the house one morning in February, smiling and game to lead a tour but clearly exhausted, having been out late the night before with Nakashima at a couple of Academy Awards parties. She was already up and out the door, leaving Burns to greet Austin Kelly, the architect who founded XTEN in 2000 with his wife, Monika Hafelfinger.
Burns and Nakashima bought a different, adjacent house on this ridge in 2005, which they still own. Looking for a way to expand and turn that house into a guest cottage, the couple bought this place five years ago. Built in the 1960s, it had been owned by the same woman for decades and was decorated in a mixture of Canyon Hippie and Cluttered Chalet. “It had this hanging fireplace and barely any windows,” Kelly says.
XTEN started remaking the house without adding any new interior square footage, which would have triggered a long list of code requirements and hillside building restrictions. Burns had already started taking down some interior walls, and the architects accelerated that process, adding glass on nearly every elevation and opening the master bedroom on the north edge of the house, in particular, to the outside.
What turned this project from a remodel into a complete reinvention were two bigger moves. One was to slide a 500-square-foot terrace and wide outdoor stair next to the kitchen on the south end. This insertion creates an outdoor connection between the living room and the kitchen, and another between the living room and a large rooftop deck. Perhaps most important of all, it turns the multilevel nature of the existing house from a drawback into a major amenity.
“Most of the modern houses on these hillsides are just one interior plane supported by a couple of columns, which makes their views mono-directional,” Kelly says. “What you don't get is any tension, like we get in this house, between views in various directions.”
The second move was to treat the exterior (and to a lesser extent the interior) as a single architectural volume. Kelly and Hafelfinger decided to wrap the structure in new plaster and the roof in a thermoplastic membrane; Burns suggested they paint the whole thing black, roof and all. While that gesture increases the maintenance required—Burns plans to have the roof resealed once a year—it has produced a house of uncommon graphic strength and legibility. The architects tucked all of the gutters on the inside of the roofline to further streamline the exterior profile.
“Early on we knew we had to treat it as a single piece,” Kelly says. “It was a really important thing for such a small building that it look completely uniform from the outside.”
Finishes inside are similarly monochromatic, though all white instead of black. The floors are concrete epoxy, the cabinets lacquered to a high sheen. Though hidden on the outside, the original wood roof beams are exposed inside (but painted white like everything else). The open interiors and operable clerestory windows on the upper level create natural ventilation, eliminating the need for air-conditioning.
While the existing house and the way it grew out of the hillside offered no shortage of constraints, it also made XTEN's innovation work here. “You'd never be able to build any house at all on this site today, given the way the hillside codes have changed,” Kelly says. Working with the existing structure also kept costs down; Kelly says the project was completed for roughly $250 per square foot. There is some new steel belowground, but the rest of the new framing is wood. Kelly says the firm's experience in building hillside houses in Los Angeles, many with tight budgets, has given it a resourceful attitude about structure.
“Other architects might look at a project like this and see it as a formal exercise,” Kelly says. “They would frame the entire thing in steel, because of the shape. On most of our houses we couldn't afford steel, so we had to figure out how to do it with wood.” If you're willing to spend the time to really understand structure, he adds, “it's astonishing how little you can build for in L.A.”
Completion Date: March 2011
Size: 1,890 square feet (interiors); 945 square feet (terraces); 2,835 square feet (gross)
Total construction cost: Withheld at owner’s request
10315 Jefferson Boulevard
Culver City, CA 90232
T (310) 773-4188
F (310) 287-2002
Owner: Withheld at owner’s request
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Monika Haefelfinger, SIA
Other special hardware: Soss, Titus
Paints and stains: Benjamin Moore
Solid surfacing: Caesarstone
Flooring (interior/exterior decks): Dex o Tex Epoxy Concrete
Kitchen Appliances: Miele, Franke, Thermador