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Verwers+Petersen Villa: An Architect's Home (Part 2 - The Concept)

3D digital architectural model of modern house
3D digital aerial model study

Welcome to Part 2 of the process of designing and building an architect's own home ; the Verwers+Petersen Villa in Elfin Forest, California. After describing the site in Part 1, with this entry we will be taking a deep dive into the the myriad design considerations in producing architectural concepts, and what actually goes on in the architect's tortured mind.

Schematic Design

Schematic design must be the reason many architects become architects. This is dreamtime, where you can disappear into other worlds of thought, and ocassionally complete fantasy. I like to start without any preconceived ideas, keeping an open mind and sketching in two dimensions while thinking in three dimensions. That said, I often have a vision of the design in my mind's eye before any sketching is done.

I find myself telling clients, "This is what the design wants to be!". As with any creative endeavor, somehow the ideas magically manifest themselves, and an optimal design somehow emerges from the myriad of ideas. The architect (or any artist for that matter) is simply a medium or catalyst for the idea.

I am always interested in reducing a concept to its essential components, so that the integrity, beauty and elegance of an idea can come to the fore. All great projects are the direct expression of a central, bearing idea, unburdened by overdesign, too many varying materials, and historical styles. This modernist, reductivist approach is really a philosophy of design, and of life itself. "Less is more:", as the great architect Mies van der Rohe famously said.

My generation of architects learned to conceptualize and produce all drawings by hand, and then transitioned (apart from a few notable, stubborn purists) into digital drafting. I draw by hand in schematic design only, as I feel the connection between the creative mind and the representation of spatial ideas is unfiltered with hand drawing, whereas a keyboard, mouse and screen are essentially barriers to direct expression. With hand to paper, even the quality of the line work can express an emotion, or a specific spatial idea or expression.

Concurrently with hand sketching, I like to develop digital massing models of a favorite concept or concepts, which is an excellent way to test a concept for scale, proportion, relationship to the site, etc.. The digital model can inform further sketching, can be updated throughout the design process, and can eventually be used to generate construction documents.

hand drawn architectural floor plan sketch
floor plan sketch

hand sketch of house facade concept
conceptual facade sketch

Site Opportunities and Constraints

Any undeveloped parcel will have inherent limitations and constraints, whether they be geographical, topographical, or simply zoning parameters such as allowed uses, setbacks, height limitations, and floor area ratios. This parcel is over three acres in area, where only approximately one acre is practical to build on. Fortunately, the buildable area provides great potential for downslope, south and east facing views, and good solar orientation. The parcel is surrounded by a natural chaparral preserve, providing opportunities for using the house itself to create private spaces with focused views and spatial connections to the surrounding nature.

The relationship of the structures to the site topography and landscape is very important, and the design must be "site specific". For sloped parcels such as mine, the standard developer approach is to grade a level pad into the slope, onto which the house is placed. The house could be placed on any site, and has no relationship with the site. I prefer a more integrated approach, where the massing and distribution of the volumes of the house respect the topography of the slope, and is configured in response to the landscape in a more holistic approach.

Intuitively, I felt the structure should be located as high on the slope and as far from the road as possible, as this siting would provide optimal security, acoustical separation from the road, a strong connection to the adjacent preserve, and create a sense inside the house of floating above the terrain.

3D architectural hand sketch
eye level 3D sketch
floor plan sketch

The Concept

My initial sketching quickly gravitated toward a tiered structure of two interwoven building volumes, the uppermost of which cantilevers over the lower volume. I began to see the house as a crisp, abstract sculpture in the rugged chaparral landscape, harmonizing with the terrain through contrast rather than emulation. The primary residence became a simple box with large cut-outs for expansive window walls toward focused views. This volume was then cantilevered over the entry, garage, and vehicle court. As the house is approached from below the building site, the impression of the cantilevered volume with expansive glass will be dramatic and engaging.

The ADU (accessory dwelling unit) is located in a separate, lower volume, which extends along the vehicle court. The two semi-detached volumes constitute a well-proportioned composition, and are separated by an exterior stair leading from the vehicle court to the pool terrace on the upper level. I feel the interweaving of, and the dialogue between the two volumes is very successful..

The primary residence will contain three bedrooms and two bathrooms, all oriented to the quiet, north-facing side of the house facing the preserve. The living room is located in the cantivered portion of the upper volume, "floating" over the vehicle court with expansive downslope views to the east and south. Behind the living room, the central kitchen and dining area will have a direct connection to the pool terrace facing the preserve.

The ADU will have a separate entrance, and will initially serve as the design studio for TVA as well as my wife's weaving studio. Later, it can be rented as a self-contained residence.

All in all, I feel the selected concept is appropriate to the site and will be a striking addition to the community and landscape.

3D digital architectural model of modern house
3D digital model study

In my next post, we will look at further development of this concept, and the the myriad of public agency requirements and onerous permitting procedures required to build a custom home in California today.

Finally, please subscribe to updates regarding this ongoing project and other topics by entering your email and clicking subscribe at the bottom of this page. Thank you.

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