Custom Homes to Multi-Unit Housing: How to Bridge the Divide without Loosing Quality


AI-Architects is a Santa Monica-based architecture firm.  Principal architect Aleks Istanbullu discusses recent West Hollywood project 1200 Sweetzer which is currently receiving honors.

Photography: Val Riolo

Several well documented macro-economic factors helped shape the fundamental form of single family housing in the United States today. These include the abundance of undeveloped rural land near city centers, the abundance of post Second World War wealth, direct Federal Government subsidies and indirect local development subsidies in the form of taxpayer financed access infrastructure provided to developments within reasonable reach of urban centers.

As rural land was converted to residential suburbs municipal governments provided targeted road, transit, sanitation and life safety facilities to these new communities and paid for them through taxation of the larger County and State constituencies. The decades comprising of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and to a large extent the 80’s saw an unabated proliferation of sprawl consisting mostly of residential communities each of which requiring its own commercial and public infrastructures.

Photography: Val Riolo



As a result of the anti-tax movements of the 1980’s, regional government revenues plummeted and forced the partial elimination of the decades long indirect subsidies. That cost burden was passed back onto developments forcing housing unit prices upward to reflect their true cost – now unsupported by regional and state taxpayers. As the indirect subsidy of the infrastructure cost of suburban developments was no longer sustainable, we became aware of something else that was un-sustainable – sprawl – and for very different reasons. The strange bedfellows of the conservative anti-tax movement and the progressive sustainability movement created the current “smart growth” movement which discourages the taking of rural land for development of new residential communities and encourages instead the denser development of urban infill land for mixed-use transportation oriented complexes that take advantage of existing public and private infrastructures. We know this is all for the best and that it already has and will continue to make for more livable, more affordable and more sustainable communities but how do we convince the middle class families who can financially afford this environmentally unsustainable life to move back into the cities they abandoned.

The Challenge

The architect’s challenge within this context and in support of the inherent planning advantages of Smart Growth is to convince the American family – by now used to the advantages of single-family homes on individual plots – that they can preserve the feel and functionality of an unsustainable lifestyle while they partake in the advantage of sustainable urban communities. In other words how can design help to bridge the divide between the expectations raised by our familiarity with single-family homes and a “dwelling unit” in a multi-family complex? And how can we do this without loosing quality of life?

In order to thoughtfully design the next generation of innovative housing we ought to analyze both what we gained when we moved to millions of single-family homes and analyze what we were running away from. Like every normal spoiled child, we want to avoid all the bad things we got away from in the first place and we want to maintain all the advantages we gained by moving away.  In moving back into our cities we want to avoid reacquiring the problems we were running away from.

What we were running away from when we left the urban apartment dwellings: We were running away from dark hallways fed by dank elevators; we were running away from apartments with eight foot ceilings; we were running away from apartments with light coming in from only one direction and therefore only for limited times of day; we were running away from homes that had no natural cross-ventilation; we were running away from apartments whose only connection to nature was through relatively few operable windows overlooking noisy streets and alleys; we were running away from poor public safety and sanitation.

Photography: Val Riolo



What we gained in single-family dwellings after we abandoned apartment living: We gained an abundance of light and air from all directions with the functionality of operable windows; we gained the ability of living in a sequence of spaces that provide alternative programming options – size, number and type of rooms; we gained the ability to better define and manage our relationship to our neighbors and to the community surrounding us – in other words we gained more ‘privacy’; we also gained the ability to better define privacy within our own homes and among our family members; we gained a heightened sense of ownership and identity because a single-family house allowed us to shape it to our personal aesthetic; and last but not least we gained the ability to better define the desired relationship between our families, our gardens and nature.

We need to once again redefine and rebalance our aesthetic, functional and social relationship with our environment. But this time, and again with our suitcases in hand as we move back into the cities we abandoned, we are doing it aware of a new reality as the balancing act must now take into consideration the long term environmental sustainability of our cities and society.

Shifting the Paradigm – a Case Study in finding a new balance

Architects detail cities that are conceived, designed and implemented by others. Our creative efforts are geared to excel and exceed expectations set by extent planning and zoning regulations. As such the Smart Growth battle must be engaged by cities well in advance of a project getting into a developer’s hand or on an architect’s board. Luckily many communities and cities across the US and including Southern California have aggressively engaged the battle for more sustainable cities. Meanwhile the creation of smaller cities within the larger metropolitan areas has customized civil response and created communities that feel and are safe.

Communities First and then come the Architects

A large part of the work that needs to be done is being done at the municipal planning and community levels. These include enlightened zoning policies with proper incentives. Many communities including West Hollywood have adopted such regulations. Over the past twenty years WeHo enacted a series of zoning ordinances that collectively recognize the need for a denser pedestrian friendly city with tight planning guidelines that encourage design innovation. WeHo enacted ordinances that privilege sustainable technologies and provide incentives for such. West Hollywood encourages and privileges projects that provide a better relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces as well as providing height and setback bonuses for innovative design and the provision of affordable housing.

1200 Sweetzer, West Hollywood – a Case Study – 10 units @ 45 DU/Acre

Photography: Val Riolo

Although an architect working on one project at a time can do relatively little about the city scale decisions, an architects can do a lot about the touch and feel of new habitat. The project organization, circulation system and housing typology implemented at 1200 Sweetzer is conceived to shift the paradigm and set a new standard for sustainable urban living in Southern California.

1200 Sweetzer is designed to entice Southern Californians from their unsustainable freestanding homes and offer them instead a home with all the flexibility, functionality, and aesthetic control and freedom of the California dream in a vibrant, dense and sustainable urban setting.

The building is set back from the sidewalk behind a densely planted edge and gives way to an open court that welcomes residents and visitors alike into a vibrant and dramatic community courtyard off which the intimate yet spacious entries to the homes are located.  The ground level homes open onto private gardens and/or courts; the penthouse level homes open to expansive roof decks and embrace views of the City and the Hollywood Hills.

Within the homes, the two story plan allows the kitchen, dining and living rooms to be loft-like with 10-foot ceilings and open plans connecting naturally to the surrounding gardens or views. The bedroom floors are organized and proportioned with the spaciousness and grace of highly crafted custom homes.

Photography: Val Riolo

Each home has multiple orientations for daylong natural light and cross-ventilation: eight have operable windows on four orientations and two on three sides.

Each bedroom suite has cross-ventilation and light from two orientations with the exceptions of one bedroom in the three bedroom residence which has a single large operable window. Dedicated forced air systems allow the two floors within each home to be controlled independently.

Each residence is custom designed to take full advantage of its unique position and circumstance within the complex, resulting in individual floor plans, fenestration, amenities and views. The bedrooms of the five penthouses are located on the floor below the living spaces; the five courtyard homes’ bedrooms are on the level above. A dramatic roof deck running the length of the building is accessed by three of the penthouses.

The interiors are appointed with highly crafted details, materials and fixtures including mahogany floors and cabinetry, high-end Italian tiles and Bertazoni ranges similar to our high-end custom homes in Pasadena, Newport Beach, Beverly Hills, Malibu, Hancock Park, Mulholland Drive, and the Hollywood Hills.

The overall configuration of the building avoids internal corridors or motel style circulation, by orienting the residences around a gracious courtyard culminating in a dramatic three story architectural space off which private entries to each home are organized.

Upon entering each home, the warm mahogany floors of the interior spaces create a sense of arrival and contrast with the cooler palette of the exterior architecture.

The variety of plans, the alternating intimate and loft-like spaces, the multiple orientations, the two-story organization, and the flexible fenestration, enables each homeowner to retain both the feeling of freedom and the direct control over his/her environment associated with freestanding houses.

The Hope

I believe we are at the beginning of this investigation and that architects will be discussing these issues for a few more decades. Although the 1200 Sweetzer Project is marketed to an upper scale clientele as “Boutique Homes” largely due to it’s location, the lessons learned and the principles applied are the same for affordable housing. It is my hope to soon work on a project that includes these principals at a larger scale thus making them financially more feasible. As we take advantage of the economies applied to larger projects and make these environmentally sustainable ideas financially sustainable as well.

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