Back to School
Learning from Los Angeles
It has been more than a beat since I wrote anything here. My last post was back in mid-January.
I had hoped to keep writing at a good pace this year, and I even made a list of a dozen essays I would write or revisit. And then, life took a new turn, and I ran out of much free time to write.
So what have I been doing?
Well, I went back to school for the last year or so, although I did not precisely attend an actual school, start another degree or take night classes—nothing like that.
No, it was much more of a DIY education, partly self-taught, on-the-job learning: lessons downloaded from YouTube and Fine Home Building and gleaned from general contractors and subcontractors.
And what did I learn?
I learned how to build a three-story house from the ground up, working from a set of my own plans. But, first, I had to assemble a floating faculty and an itinerant school to get there. So I hassled GCs, vendors, expediters, architect and engineer friends for insights. I bugged building inspectors and their supervisors for shortcuts and tricks. I pestered anyone who would lend me an ear. And when that did not work, I bought them lunch.
Like trying anything new for the first time, I made mistakes. As might be expected when you don’t quite know what the hell you are doing—but you have the usual architect’s hubris— there were a lot of fuck-ups, lost hair, lost sleep, and too much caffeine. There was a lot of trial and error on someone else’s dime, which never feels good.
When I failed any of the courses, I had to repeat the homework— quickly learning from my mistakes but only after grudgingly admitting them. But there was also a great deal of collaboration, sympathy, and compromise that got me through.
Importantly, I’m incredibly grateful to the subcontractor team, especially master wood framer David Hernandez, who also handled assembling all the concrete forms. Without David, I think there would have been no way to learn the correct way to build and no way to avoid all the wrong ways to get things done. There are many ways to mess up even small buildings and fewer ways to get it right. From David, I learned that there are no good shortcuts, just lots of poor judgment calls that can pile up on top of earlier bad decisions.
Luckily the project is turning out okay, maybe quite a bit better than okay. And the redevelopment concept for the property itself is an interesting one. It will be the first piece of a multi-generational, multi-cultural, up to 16-person family compound. Over the next few years, and across three properties, the first house will be followed by an ADU and two new homes on adjacent lots with home offices and studios. Communal activities will be woven through outdoor areas and flow into shared cooking, eating, and socializing spaces in the three-story hub-like unit. Ideally, I will build and design all the other pieces in sequence, financing permitting, because, in full disclosure, my daughter and I are, to put it very weirdly, non-biologically related to the extended family members on the compound.
So, aside from learning how to build, I’m also hopeful that this “live-work, hybrid, shared co-development model” will apply to other sites across LA. And if so, maybe I will get to keep stringing together a bunch of cliched catch-all, over-hyped developer terms. But if it all functions as designed, I suspect that as a model for other properties, this less than traditional living arrangement will improve our neighborhoods by reconnecting families through shared activities on shared properties. Instead of forcing us all to fend for ourselves one lot or one apartment at a time, shared homeownership might make it possible for traditional (and non-traditional families) to own together instead of rent.
I believe this is sort of the density LA needs. Cutting out the duplicated spaces we never use (front yards and driveways, for instance) will allow us to replace them with extra living spaces.
Mining our existing resources also means not constructing more soulless apartment complexes on every corridor. I want to think of it as a form of discovering a treasure trove of living areas inside the spaces we already have. We can create communal areas by eliminating leftover, dead spaces we don't need. We can make room for elderly parents and kids just out of college. And for those of us who have the luxury of working from home, we can cut out commuting.
Of course, there will be code concerns and problems with parking requirements, lot lines, setbacks, fences, and the challenge of financing, holding, and reselling conjoined properties. And there will be noise and fire code concerns, but I suspect we can smartly mitigate all these issues.
So who knows? This might be something to teach others how to do. And maybe my next self-taught academic course will be small-scale real estate, in-fill property redevelopment.
Ultimately, what I learned this year is that architecture's ability to teach us about ourselves has nothing to do with its cultural status or social media trendiness, aesthetics, or “academic criticality.” These matter, of course, but not so much, at least to me.
In learning how to build a medium-sized structure, I finally realized that architecture will not happen without reinforcing the human relationships that undergird its creation. So the big personal lesson I have embraced is this: without honoring the enduring quality of each human relationship on a job site, in an office, or on a family compound, there is no architecture.
And getting back to school now, let’s all agree there is no such thing as an architectural education without genuine concern for how we teach, learn, and treat each other, especially our students.
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