GREENBAUM HOUSE: COD 2013 Spring Conference

Greenbaum House Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

Homes are expressions of our individualities. The home emerges out of the ground wrapping around the space we need to lead a comfortable life. Comfort has a direct correlation with the climate. Following our individual expression, it is the climate that is the primary determinant of the home design and construction. Exploring the mid-century modern architecture, the AIA Committee on Design (COD) held its annual Spring Conference at Palm Springs, CA on May 9-12, 2013. The conference led us to many homes built between 1930s to current date in this desert climate. I was one of the two lucky winners of the COD Knowledge Scholarship, and was able to avail the opportunity of being a part of the tremendous conference through the generous support of couple donors.

Palm Springs is a unique city located off the major arteries of Los Angeles region, sitting on a detour between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The city was born and put on the map when celebrities traveling between LA and LV would leisure at Palm Springs having a good time away from the tourist traffic. The practice continues today. This pattern has led to many homes away from homes in Palm Springs. We toured many of the luxurious residences and other prominent projects during the COD conference. The architects of the projects we visited included Albert Frey, Palmer & Krisel, John Lautner, Donald Wexler, Stewart Williams, William Cody, Jim Jennings, Marmol & Radziner, O2 Architecture, Ana Escalante, and Frederick Fisher. We had the privilege of hearing from William Krisel, Jim Jennings and Fred Fisher, among others.

Responding to the local climate, each home we visited had a large private swimming pool, which seemed to be a checklist item for all construction in Palm Springs. Each project also made the best use of the surrounding views, so much so that one forgot the house while looking out. Of all the projects we saw, I was immediately taken by the Greenbaum House designed by Ana Escalante, completed in 2006. This is a residence where the boundary between the outdoor swimming pool and the large living room completely melts, a house where the individuality of the owner shines, and a house that begins to speak to the Palm Springs climate.

Entrance to Greenbaum House. Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

The inspiration for the house came from the owner who loves to swim. The initial thought was to design something very environment appropriate, which slowly turned to be exhibitionist as well. The house expresses the individuality of the owner by bringing the outdoor swimming pool at your face as soon as you enter the house. The entrance of the Greenbaum House is sunken, approached by a sloping ramp from the street level culminating at a shaded outdoor vestibule. One enters the living room directly facing the swimming pool beyond the concrete wall with punched openings.

During our visit, once we absorbed the blue glow of the light coming from the pool filtering into the living area, we were surprised by the sudden appearance of the owner waving at us from the pool. We found ourselves drawn immediately to the glass wall separating the pool from the living room. Only after exploring the pool did we take in the rest of the space. The effect is mesmerizing to the first time visitor.

Living Room Wall’s Punched Openings to Swimming Pool. Image by Deepika Padam

Owner Swimming as Seen from Living Room. Image by Deepika Padam

This house is about the pool, built around a pool, engulfing the pool, exhibiting the pool, with the owner almost living in the pool. But the pool was not just meant to be a pool during the design phase. It was imagined that because the pool will stay at 70 to 80 degrees temperature throughout the year and the windows between the pool and the living space are well insulated, it will help control the temperature within the house. But the owner jokes today that it is similar to being in a plane at 42,000 feet and mistakenly thinking that those plane windows also insulate. In reality, the Greenbaum house controls temperature well because it is part subterranean and insulated in the superstructure very well. The pool certainly helps keep it cool, yet is not the primary insulator. However, the pool remains the central attraction for everybody. When the owner holds parties at the house, everybody has a lot of fun with the pool and the picture windows, where everybody has taken a Facebook™ picture.

Second Floor Perched Above the Swimming Pool. Image by Deepika Padam

There is more to this house than a beautiful 25m lap pool sunken in the ground. The house is located 500 feet above the valley floor in a gated community with dramatic views of the desert and the city below. “The developer of the community created the home site by leveling the existing natural mountain features. The project carves back into the site as well as hovers over it, in order to restore its original dramatic topographical features.” – Escalante Architects. Not only does the form of the house address the local terrain in this fashion, but it also takes advantage of the natural insulation offered by the ground due to being subterranean. Ample daylight is allowed into the interiors while controlling the heat gain through shutters, projections and canopies. The indoor spaces flow into the outdoor spaces with large glass expanses that open up into terraces. These terraces are used for entertaining guests during the milder temperatures in the evening.

Floor Plans. Source:

The organization of the house functions is not atypical. The living room seating area steps down following the site terrain and opens up to the valley view beyond. The kitchen and dining area are in the opposite direction with a guest bedroom in the back. The second floor is perched above the swimming pool, crosses over and lands on the detached fitness room alcove on the other side of the pool. The upstairs consists of two separate bedroom suites. Flanked by the two bedroom suites is a small library / seating alcove that opens up to a large terrace fully equipped with barbeque appliances. When you walk out to the back at the mid-level, you are welcomed by the pools. The sunken lap pool provides the illusion of an infinity pool casting a blue glow over the second floor slab above. There is also a separate sauna building adjacent to the fitness room.

Blue Glow from the Pool. Image by Deepika Padam

Pool Image by Marco Garcia from the website of Escalante Architects

At about 4,300 SF, the Greenbaum House is a good size house built in steel frame construction. The owner shared with us that it took about a year and a half of construction time to build the house. The construction had to stop a few times because the engineers wanted to reinforce the living room/pool demising wall with redundancy. So they kept re-engineering it. It is designed to withstand an 8-point earthquake. The glass windows are composed of four layers of glass and four layers of mylar, making them a total of 4.5” thick pane windows. The utility bill, which in the Palm Springs desert could be up to $25,000 a year, is under $100 a month on average for the Greenbaum House with the integrated active and passive solar systems. Standing in the Living Room and pointing to the East wall with punched openings to the pool, the owner is confident that the pool helps insulate along the Eastern edge. He proudly swims every day.

Punched Window Between the Living Room and Outdoor Pool. Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

When the house was built, the design team took as many eco-friendly measures as they could at the time. A small token of it is the tile in the pool, bathrooms, etc. made of recycled bottle glass. Using materials and finishes that speak of the desert, the house sets an example for responsible architecture at Palm Springs. It turns out, the house is currently for sale. As the owner spends much of his time in the Bay Area, he has decided to move. When asked what his next house will be like, he says with a smile that it will be smaller.

Seating Lounge on the Second Floor. Image by Deepika Padam

One of the Suites on the Second Floor. Image by Deepika Padam

A majority of the work we visited during the COD conference was done in the 50s. The Greenbaum House is one of the few that is done by a contemporary architect. These custom homes not only express the owners’ individualities, but also the unique design approach to the climatic conditions of the desert and the styles prevalent during the time of construction. The Greenbaum House, although may seem to be a rather usual house with expected functional organization, orientation to views, and response to climate, gets away from the design approach of its Palm Springs predecessors. This is evident in the site manipulation to make it a 3-level residence in essence, and in the use of contemporary measures to environmental control and envelop design. However, the house fails to accomplish many shaded outdoor spaces that some of the older homes at Palm Springs so generously provide. Ultimately it is a functional modern home that could be located in another climate or locality very easily. However, having lived in a desert home for many years myself, the $100 energy bill on average seems quite a feat!

The Owner Sharing his Stories with the COD Group. Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

The Greenbaum House screams simplicity. It is a simple home that springs from a pool with living spaces suspended above the pool. The interior finishes and furnishings are modern and simple as well along the language of the contemporary desert architecture. It is a place built to entertain with blurred indoor and outdoor boundaries. The house delivers the owner’s desire of focusing on the lap pool. This was the one house we visited during the entire conference where I finally removed my shoes and wet my feet.

Pool as seen from Second Floor Entertainment Patio. Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

Deepika and Dorothy Taking a Break from the Palm Springs Heat. Images by Steven K. Alspaugh

Although Greenbaum House left a permanent imprint on my mind, the whole conference was an eye-opening experience for me. It broadened my perspective for the committee, and I was able to connect with professionals from various spectrums, levels, and backgrounds. COD is a great group to get involved with for emerging professionals and seasoned architects alike. The conference itself is an out-of-the-box experience with the majority of the time spent in visiting architecture instead of talking about it in a freezing conference hall. The work is carefully chosen along the theme for the year. I took the time to enjoy the conference and the great company during the three days, but also stayed in touch with the outer world through my tweets and images. I returned overjoyed, energized and inspired.

Lessons Learnt From Starting My Own Firm

I am living my dream. That’s what I thought till yesterday when the light bulb went off!

A few months ago I decided to launch my own practice. It was something I wanted to do for a long time, and it was something that some of my ex-bosses thought I should do. Everybody who knew me thought I fit the personality, skills and drive. I was getting pumped from all directions. And I wanted a new adventure in my life. A lot of my friends were doing it out of necessity, loss of job, recession, and what not. I did it because I wanted to give it a shot. Try it once and see how it goes. I had no potential clients, but I jumped on the bandwagon!

Because I had been thinking about it for quite a while, I did some homework before I made my decision. I am super impulsive by nature, but I was a bit cautionary in this particular action. I attended a few sessions here and there about starting your own architecture firm. Didn’t read any books, I can’t handle the books without a storyline. I knew I needed some money in the bank to survive, so I saved a little. But I had quite a few financial surprises awaiting!

For the first time in life, I paid my dues to the associations I belong to out of my own pocket. AIA ticket was the biggest! ULI came in close second. And I decided to join SPUR because it was quite affordable. I passed on USGBC although I am passionate about Green Building. The problem is, it’s not just the dues you have to pay. But there are additional charges for attending almost every nice event you want to go to. So you have to consider those additional charges on top of the dues. These charges add up real fast. And when you aren’t making a paycheck, they can be quite painful. Forget attending conferences if you are not funded! Then there are the business expenses for initial set up. You’ll spend thousands in the first few months, getting your business registered, buying software, signing an office lease, marketing material, website, business cards… it adds up.

But I knew all this before I got myself into this. I was prepared for this. What I wasn’t prepared for was a shocker I faced in the eye yesterday.

You see… being a woman with a foreign accent, I always got the impression that I could get some certifications and go after public work. Public work is my absolute love. I have never been comfortable doing private work, maybe because I have never worked with a developer who really cared about the environment or aesthetic quality of the work. My private client experience has been driven by financial outcomes. Public entities, although they move slow, care. They have to! Money is tight, but they care. So my gameplan was to set up the business, get certified as Small Business Enterprise (SBE), Minority Business Enterprise (MBE), Local Business Enterprise (LBE), Women Based Enterprise (WBE), and then go after public work. I expected the process to be long, waiting for RFQs for IDIQ lists, then going through the steps, hopefully get called for an interview, and hoping to win a commission. Long process. Turns out, all certifications require US citizenship. Totally fair! I completely understand that. However, for a person like me with no country, this is a bummer. I’ve spent the last 12 years paying taxes like every other citizen of United States, rather paid much more in tuition and what not because I’m not a citizen. But now I can’t even qualify for government work. Life would be different if I was an illegal immigrant or married to a citizen. Unfortunately the laws are more strict for people who migrate out of skills and ability than for those who take shortcuts.

I am faced with the reality of the matter now. Await a few more years before I can even qualify for any government work! In the meanwhile, I have to shift gears and find private clients. Something I never thought I’d be doing when I have my own business. It’s a complete shift in my strategy. Part-time teaching was always part of the plan, so I will continue to pursue that. And I’m working on couple design competitions. So in a way I am still living my dream… owning my business, being my own boss, running my own schedule, participating in design competitions, pursuing teaching. The shift is in my target clientele. A group that is outside of my comfort zone. But it’s something I will have to do to survive.

This brings me to the lessons learnt. I wish I had done the following before I started this journey. Too late for me, but the list might help some aspiring architects.

1. Don’t do it solo. There are things I am good at, but there are things I wish I never had to deal with. I am a social person, but within my comfort zone. If I had a partner today, I will be out and about every night building a network. But doing that solo is a huge challenge for me. I wish I had a partner today who would be willing to go through the lists of potential clients, strategize on how to target them, and keep an eye out for RFQs. I need marketing help. Of course I can’t hire one, so I’ve got to deal with it! I wish I could find a partner who was a US citizen and go after these certifications. But it’s too late for me. If you want a partner, find one while you are in school, while you are taking AREs, while you are working in a paid job.

2. Don’t do it if you don’t have a project in hand. Some people work on a family or friend’s house or store as their first project. Those people are wise. You need something to start. I have NO family in this country, so I don’t have a support network. All my friends are architects, because I spent the last many years hanging out with AIA folks in all of my free time. I have a big network, but the majority of them are architects, with couple engineers. Now I need to make new friends, and I don’t know where to begin! I am too much of an architect, and that too an AIA addict.

3. Be open to possibilities. I had put all my hopes and expectations in getting public work. And now I have to completely shift and look at the opposite end. You never know where life will take you. So be open to all possibilities. I didn’t work on a business plan, financial plan, or any plan. I still won’t be working on one. Maybe it’s a good idea to do that. Don’t take my example in this matter. I am yet to make a check. Working on non-profit work and competitions hasn’t got me a dollar, and I don’t expect it to!

In spite of these early woes and struggles, I am hopeful. It will take some time, but I will get there. I will sign my first contract. I’m sure I’ll have something to add to the list in six months from now. This is just the beginning…