Trent Wolbe and Grace Lee are part of a pilot project to build an ADU in their backyard in Highland Park. Photo by Frances Anderton.
FROM THIS EPISODE
Los Angeles needs to build more housing. Many Angelenos need help paying the mortgage. Is the solution to both in our backyards?
“Your house can have a baby. You can make the baby work,” said Diahanne Payne, a longtime building contractor and founder of “Illegal Additions Made Legal.”
In the second show in our series “This is Home in LA: From the tent to the gigamansion, (and everything in between),” DnA explores ADUs, or Accessory Dwelling Units -- and asks if they might help solve the housing crisis while adding equity to costly single-family homes.
DnA talks with planners and elected officials who have fought to legalize backyard homes, both existing unpermitted units -- of which there are thousands in LA, commonly known as granny flats -- and new structures.
We meet a Highland Park couple who agreed to build an ADU as a test-case, in collaboration with Councilman Gil Cedillo’s office, the City of LA and the mayor’s innovation team as well as several nonprofits: designers LA Más, builders Habitat for Humanity, and financiers Genesis LA.
“The purpose of the entire project was to push policy, and it was to reexamine the current policies and how they reflect how people are actually living in LA these days,” says homeowner Grace Lee.
She and her husband Trent Wolpe found that building an ADU is complex, costly and full of surprises, such as finding the sloping site need deep caissons and that they needed to conform, at a price, to the design demands of the local HPOZ (Historic Preservation Overlay Zone).
In response to lessons learned, Ken Bernstein of the City Planning department’s Office of Historic Resources, says HPOZs can no longer impose design specifics on ADUs, only height and width limits.
The legalization of ADUs represents a mini-building boom and has builders, consultants and designers coming out of the woodwork, some of who see ADU’s as a vehicle for design experimentation.
DnA talks to the CEO of a firm that promises to streamline the mass-production of ADUs through deploying computational design and software. One of its investors was an early investor in AirBnB and SnapChat.
Meanwhile, some designers have more fanciful ideas in mind, such as Jimenez Lai and his firm Bureau Spectacular, which was shortlisted in a recent Yes to ADUs! design competition. His solution: idiosyncratic structures full of character, “somewhat pleasantly human like or animal like with arms and legs and hats.”
He also that a street of ADUs should combine to form a shared piece of local infrastructure. “If they generate electricity; if they process water; if they help with a kind of community fermentation station, then there's some agricultural or other productive use meant for the block, not for the property.”
Concepts like Lai’s may be a little far off in the future. Right now, the goal is to get going with building some ADUS, and have people’s homes become both income generators and participants in solving the region’s housing needs.
A rendering for Trent Wolbe and Grace Lee's ADU in Highland Park. Image courtesy LA Más.
Trent Wolbe, Highland Park homeowner
Grace Lee, Highland Park homeowner
Helen Leung, Co-executive director of LA Más
Elizabeth Mahlow, Principal of Nous Engineering
Bob Wieckowski, California State Senator, Senate District 10
Dana Cuff, UCLA / cityLAB (@danacuff)
Diahanne Payne, CEO, Illegal Additions Made Legal
Ken Bernstein, Los Angeles Department of City Planning
Jimenez Lai, Founder and leader of Bureau Spectacular, a design studio, and faculty member of UCLA
CityLab: The Granny Flats Are Coming
Could granny flats help ease the state's housing crisis? Some advocates think so
Building an ADU: Guidebook to Accessory Dwelling Units in the city of Los Angeles (PDF)
L.A. County wants to help build guest houses in backyards — for homeless people
Buildings in downtown are climbing up, and up. So it’s hard to remember that 90 years ago City Hall towered over the Southland.
Stephen Gee, a filmmaker and writer based in LA, says the observation deck at City Hall is “the best place in the city if you want to show off Los Angeles.”
The soaring structure of marble and tile was designed by the team of John Parkinson, John C Austin and Albert C Martin.
“There's a lot of political fighting about who was going to design this building and how much it was going to cost. But there was always an inevitable sense that it would get done, because the city was growing so rapidly that it had to get done. When it opened in April 1928 [Los Angeles had a] population of 1.4 million. The number of people that lined the streets for the parade was half a million,” Gee said.
John Parkinson designed many civic buildings in Los Angeles. They include Memorial Coliseum, Union Station, Bullock's Wilshire, and most of the structures on Spring Street and many at USC.
Parkinson was “a son of a mill worker who really had this very improbable rise -- part by good fortune, part by sheer determination -- to have a hand in many of the structures that were the building blocks of the modern metropolis that we consider Los Angeles now,” Gee said.
Gee also felt a very personal connection to Parkinson, who came from Scorton in Lancashire.
“My father was from Lancashire. And I found it remarkable that an architect who came from the same place as my dad would basically design the majority of iconic structures built in his lifetime,” Gee said. “Even though Parkinson came to have enormous success in Los Angeles, I think he stayed pretty humble guy.”
But Parkinson, in Gee’s view, has been woefully under-appreciated. For the last eight years, he has been working on a film about the architect. To get support, he determined he first needed to write a book on the topic.
He pitched it to Angel City Press, and published “Iconic Vision: John Parkinson, Architect of Los Angeles.” A film of the same name will premiere on PBS SoCal on Thursday, July 5 at 8 pm.
The documentary tells the story of a young man who sailed for the U.S. in 1883 with $5 and a tool box. He worked his way into becoming an architect, first in Seattle, and then in Los Angeles.
By 1915, Parkinson estimated his firm had designed eighty percent of the modern office buildings in the city.
“I think the irony of Parkinson’s career is that he created these monumental, iconic buildings and structures in Los Angeles that have come to define the city but he was working concurrently with the sort of darlings of architectural history and criticism. Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, Frank Lloyd Wright. They are the architects because they were modernists who’ve gotten all of the attention,” said historian Kenneth Breisch in the film.
Gee scoured archives and Parkinson’s family scrapbook to tell the architect’s story.
“It's really told through a blend of contemporary imagery but also some remarkable archival footage. We have John Parkinson's home movies, which to me was such an enormous significant find. You see these very stoic posed photographs from the ‘20s when everybody looks very serious, and then suddenly you had this black and white footage of him moving around. It's really hard to describe how that affected me. It goes from being a great story to being a great story about somebody who really lived,” Gee said.
Gee said the film tells the story of Parkinson, but also LA and the great sense of possibility that existed almost a century ago.
“You watch the old Harold Lloyd movies from this period and you see in the background that Los Angeles is one giant construction zone. And to think that here's John Parkinson, who's the preeminent architect at a time when Los Angeles really is deciding what kind of city it wants to be. It's really inventing itself and is riding the crest of a wave in history that will never be repeated,” Gee said.
Watch the trailer for “Iconic Vision: John Parkinson, Architect of Los Angeles”
Architect John Parkinson built for Los Angeles' growing metropolis
A Photo Guide to Architect John Parkinson's Huge Impact on LA
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