A Stylish Sustainability
In Schindler's Footsteps
That Schindler's work is beautiful is relevant. Architects today, grappling with the pressure to conserve, must not forget about form. A few have already met this dual challenge.
Like Schindler's, the architecture of Warren Wagner is marked by exposed building materials, sculptural form, and a fluidity between interior and exterior space. He is also driven by efforts in sustainability. For over twenty years, he has researched and used "appropriate technologies." But it is the integration of formal concerns with resource-conserving design and construction processes that drives his practice and sets it apart.
Wagner says that architects, in order to create their own, unique marriage of sustainable design with built form, must first familiarize themselves with these processes. He is quick to point out how commonsensical many of these are.
Some strategies, like the orientation of a building to the sun, have been applied in indigenous architecture for thousands of years. Yet few architects today are adept at responding to this simple parameter. Still fewer understand buildings as whole systems possessing unique ecologies and behaviors.
Wagner understands. He integrates major elements of resource conservation into his architecture: passive heating and cooling, recycled materials, current technologies, and the skillful manipulation of daylight. Furthermore, he has successfully integrated beauty and sustainability in his own idiosyncratic language.
Conservation through Form
An early example from Wagner's firm, W3 Architects, is the Pildas/Green residence and studio. This beautifully composed project incorporates passive heating and cooling and uses recycled materials as part of the building's expression. Like Schindler, Wagner left inexpensive and basic building materials exposed.
However, it is in a project in Venice for himself and his wife, artist Blue McRight, that the clearest expression of Wagner's wish to integrate sustainability with individualistic architectural expression can be found.
The McRight-Wagner Studios incorporates Wagner's office on the ground floor and McRight's painting and sculpture studio on the upper. The building faces south and fronts onto Palms Boulevard. Behind it lies the couple's one-story residence.
The building is sculptural in the tradition of the residential vernacular spawned by Schindler, and taken to new levels by Frank Gehry, Morphosis, and others. A cantilevered and tilted upper volume, corner windows, exposed joists, and large steel-framed glass doors come together to create an exuberant architecture. The front facade is a composition of steel, wood, metal, and stucco.
This building illustrates Wagner's belief that "the creation of denser live/work environments that eliminate commuting and reduce auto emissions and the consumption of fossil fuel is the single most important environmental contribution of resource-conserving design."
Conservation of Energy and Materials
In addition, thanks to passive cooling methods, there is no need for the air-conditioning that many of us in Los Angeles take for granted. The ground-floor perimeter walls are of 8-inch- (20-centimeter-) thick concrete masonry units filled with concrete. Coupled with a concrete slab on grade, this creates an effective "thermal mass" to temper the indoor climate year round.
Cool air comes in through the north wall near the floor and vents through a series of 9-foot (2.7-meter) pivoting doors/louvers on the south side of the building. At the upper floor, operable skylights allow hot air to rise and escape.
Recycled materials also play an important role in the McRight-Wagner Studios. Many of the beams are made of recycled wood. As in previous projects, they are left exposed to show off their natural beauty.
Interior cladding on the upper floor is of strawboard, an inexpensive, durable, and compostable material comparable to medium density fiberboard (MDF) but composed entirely of straw.
Outside, Wagner specified base course, an aggregate of crushed, completely recycled concrete which, when laid down as a driveway, allows water to percolate back down to the water table.
To aid in resource conservation, Wagner designed radiant "thermofloors." Pipes laid into the concrete are connected to two 40-gallon (150-liter) tanks in a passive solar water heater. Enough hot water is produced to heat the floors, even on the coldest days of the year, when the air temperature typically drops to 48 degrees Fahrenheit (9 degrees Celsius).
While such radiant heating has been used in more primitive forms all over the world for centuries, recent technological improvements have made it more effective than other kinds of heating.
The location of the water heater provides one strong example of Wagner's integration of a resource-conserving tool with inventive architectural expression. Rather than hiding it, Wagner placed the heater in a glass box located at the top southwest corner of the building, facing directly onto the street.
The observer sees a well-composed corner cut-out, one of the most important elements that make up the composition of the dynamic front facade. Looking closely, one sees the tanks and the box's black lining to help in energy absorption.
Two Approaches to Daylighting
Wagner is also skillful in introducing daylight into each of the two studios in differing, yet effective, ways. Downstairs, it streams in freely from the south.
Upstairs, due to the damage it might cause to artwork, natural light is introduced in a more controlled manner. Skylights and a large clerestory at the northeast corner allow light to enter and filter down to illuminate the space indirectly. A high ceiling increases the penetration of light into the room, and careful distribution of openings guarantees even illumination. All these openings are integrated into the building facade's composition.
The quality of light, both up and downstairs, is beautiful and abundant, creating an architecture of serenity and reflection. It is no accident that the need to keep artificial lights on at all times has been eliminated.
The rigor and clarity of Wagner's buildings showcase sustainable products and processes — important and basic lessons that all architects should know. As a professor at Woodbury University in Burbank, he is conveying them to a generation of future architects.
Through a 2001-2002 design fellowship grant from the City of Los Angeles, Wagner is working with Woodbury students to develop four prototypical live-work units that are "off the grid" and respond to conditions posed by each of the four cardinal compass points.
Using the simple organizational parameter of orientation, Wagner will be able to show how houses can respond efficiently as well as architecturally to the needs of their inhabitants.
As the world enters an era in which energy, wood, and other natural resources are ever more scarce, architects will be pressed to respond in a responsible fashion.
Wagner, in the tradition of Schindler, shows they can do so without sacrificing the formal or idiosyncratic qualities of their architecture. Wagner's work stands as an example of today's best resource-conserving residential architecture.
Alice Kimm, AIA, is a partner in the Los Angeles firm John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.