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COMFORT ZONE | Smart Designs for Pleasure and Planet

Light House

"All of our decisions were made to reinforce the feeling of warmth and relaxation," Michael Kovac says. "Friends say hanging out here is like being at a spa."

After living in the Sylvan splendor of Pacific Palisades, California, for five years, architect Michael Kovac and his wife, pediatrician Karina Maher, realized that instead of moving and trading up, they wanted to stay put and "build down." So they replaced their drafty 1950s one-story with an all-new, energy-efficient, LEED Platinum-certified three-story that cleverly descends their hillside slope.

To start, the couple deconstructed the old house, donating building materials for reuse rather than adding them to a landfill. They also rented a herd of goats to clear brush from the steep property in lieu of using chemicals or heavy machinery. The placement of the new house was dictated by three sycamores and an oak that Kovac and Maher were intent on keeping. "We had an arborist check them regularly," Kovac says. "We treated those trees like they were our kids."

Sunlight now filters through the foliage and washes across the house, animating the interior and exterior. The street-level great room has an airfoil-like wood ceiling and a long white wall that showcases the shifting play of light and shadow as the sun moves in the sky. "The wall is a canvas for those trees," Kovac says.

"The house validated our preference for embracing a site and working with nature rather than overpowering it with complex mechanical systems," Kovac says. "It's like architectural aikido."

A level below, in the master suite, dappled light glints off an ecofriendly resin panel behind the bathtub, producing the illusion of gently rippling water. Kovac says the bathroom's design was inspired by a trip to the Baths, a beach area in the British Virgin Islands.

Outside, the facade reflects the couple's desire to "marry the house to the site." They commissioned artist Jill Sykes to create images of sycamore leaves that were then sandblasted into the fiber-cement panels. With the etchings emerging from and blending back into the shadows throughout the day, the home's exterior becomes one gigantic art installation.

Along with the artful manipulation of natural light, the new home includes an exemplary list of green features, among them a green roof, a photovoltaic array, radiant heating and cooling, reclaimed-wood floors, and Forest Stewardship Council-certified timber. Says Kovac, "Now we have what we had before but better."

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Photos: Lisa Romerein/Courtesy of Kovac Architects (5)


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