When architect Simon Storey’s clients led him to a steep, undeveloped lot for sale in Silver Lake, he advised them to stop by. Storey’s firm, Anonymous Architects, is used to building on difficult sites, but he knew this particular lot would be especially challenging.
“It’s harder and more time-consuming,” Storey says.
The lot remained on the market for a few years and then the asking price dropped. That’s when Storey and his wife, Jen Holmes, decided they were willing to take on the difficult construction from scratch.
Sloped lots typically require complicated and expensive excavation and foundations, and have problems ranging from erosion to drainage and landscaping. It is not for the faint of heart.
“It is such a great pain. But I have proven myself right: it was not easy,” she says.
Storey and Holmes purchased the 2,900-square-foot lot in 2017 for $92,000 and began planning their home. The terrain was not only steep (a 33% gradient) but also long and narrow. (For comparison, the The steepest street in Los Angeles.(Eldred Street in Highland Park has the same slope.) The couple purchased the land from businessman Judd Schoenholtz, who purchased the lot in a trust sale. Ironically, Schoenholtz was considering how to build on it and had looked to some of Storey’s other houses for inspiration. “Simon is probably the only one who can understand it,” he says, laughing.
Working within the constraints of a narrow lot was familiar to Storey, who had previously built his own home in Echo Park, a compact but elegant structure whose 960 square feet exceeded the 780 feet of the lot on which it was built.
Storey’s former home, called eel nest After the slender houses typical of dense neighborhoods in Japan, a study on efficient urban living was conducted. He found ways to expand the space, just 15 feet wide, through the clever use of windows and skylights, high ceilings and a floating staircase that did double duty as a light well.
Storey and Holmes wanted to take the best parts of Eel’s Nest and the lessons learned from living in that space for more than a decade and apply them to this new project, which they called Box. Once again, the limitations of the lot dictated the design. “We had no choice but to reach the maximum width and maintain it throughout the building,” explains Storey.
The result is a long building that measures only 18 feet wide and 100 feet long. However, adding just three feet more than your previous home makes a dramatic difference. “Every centimeter makes a big difference. I don’t consider it a narrow building,” Storey says.
Storey wanted the house to be as utilitarian as possible. He chose a corrugated cement panel typically used in agricultural and industrial buildings in Europe as a cladding material over the two-story concrete base.
With the structure built three feet from the property line, city code restricted the couple from the number of windows allowed on the side of the building. As a result, the windows are arranged in a horizontal expanse, providing panoramic views of the hills of Silver Lake and Echo Park.
The entrance to the home is set back another five feet, allowing for double-height windows that span two stories, bringing in more light. The Eel’s Nest floating ladder makes another appearance in the Box, opposite the entrance. A narrow hallway on the upper floor connects the front and back of the house, but allows light to filter from both sides to the floor below. The Eel’s Nest skylight also reappears in Box, bringing more light to the master bathroom shower.
With a workshop located between the ground-floor garage and the home’s two main floors, Storey and Holmes were able to build all the cabinetry, millwork, and even items like stair treads on site. “Everything that’s made of wood we build ourselves,” Storey says.
Holmes, who works in development at LACMA but was an art student in college, found his sculpting skills came in handy. “He knew how to weld, but I didn’t do it for 20 years,” explains Holmes, who took a half-day welding class at gear workshops in Torrance to brush up on his skills.
In fact, they did much of the construction themselves, as a budgetary consideration but also to ensure the level of detail met their standards. Weekends, holidays and vacation days for almost three years were spent working at home.
The couple estimates they spent 5,500 hours working on the house, not including hours spent planning, designing and general contracting, and saved about $520,000 in construction costs based on prices for comparable projects Storey has worked on.
“I would take naps on a furniture blanket on the floor or in the car,” says Holmes, who became a regular at the nearby Whole Foods for pick-up meals before they had a functioning kitchen. “All [who works] There he knows me and I know them all.”
Other expenses included $300,000 for the foundation, more than three times what a similar-sized project on a flat lot would have cost, and about $20,500 for geological consultants to study the slope. In total, the project amounted to approximately $1.3 million. However, the average homeowner should not expect such treatment. Acting as their own architect, general contractor and builder helped Storey and Holmes save considerably. Additionally, each hillside lot presents its own hidden costs, and what it costs to build a home is often very different from its market value in the competitive Los Angeles region.
Before starting on the cabinets, the couple worked on sealing the house envelope to ensure better air quality and circulation. They meticulously identified each gap in the structuring stage, applying foam and caulking to the gaps to improve efficiency.
Once they were complete, they set out to build their own window frames and cabinets. The two carefully selected all of their own lumber from Bohnhoff Lumber Co. in Vernon, a decision Storey said is key to ensuring high quality. “It was a question of cost but also quality. “There is a surprising level of inconsistency when you don’t choose it yourself.” The natural wood provides a relaxing contrast to the industrial materials used on the exterior.
Most of the woodwork is a mix of red and white oak. With the construction of the house during the pandemic, the cost of white oak skyrocketed. Storey and Holmes began introducing red oak as an accent material, although the effect remains monochromatic. “I don’t want to live somewhere stark, but I like minimalist things,” Holmes says.
All cabinetry and woodwork is custom, designed to meet the couple’s needs. Separating the kitchen and living room is a multi-purpose room within a room that includes a custom pantry on one side and cabinets to store your record collection and stereo on the other.
“Every element in the house has a function,” Storey says. The focus on utilitarian design is a legacy of Eel’s Nest. “We’re squeezing as much utility out of the building as possible.” Appliances, primarily Fisher & Paykel, are hidden behind custom wood paneling, as are closets and bathrooms.
With four bedrooms and three bathrooms, the home was designed to be flexible enough to adapt to changing needs. Planned before the pandemic, Storey’s design called for his office to occupy the back of the house, with living spaces in the front. However, the office can easily be converted into a guest suite for family or visitors that includes a kitchenette and private entrance.
As a passionate cook, Holmes programmed the kitchen layout to her specifications. The sink is located on a central island, facing the views. “Every party I go to, people end up in the kitchen,” Holmes says. “I wanted it to be comfortable for cooking but also a place to entertain. “We can have four, eight or 20 people here and it doesn’t feel too big or too small.”
While Holmes wanted the kitchen to be as functional as possible, Storey wanted it to not look like a kitchen at all. “The refrigerator and freezer disappear. Nothing screams “kitchen.” We had opposite goals, but we managed to merge into a perfect solution,” she says, adding, “It’s a good allegory of marriage.”