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954 5th Street – Merging the Future with the Past:

Walking by 954 5th Street, one is aware that the little turn-of-the-century cottage – once prolific throughout Santa Monica – has become a dying breed.  Small for today’s standards, many cottages in the area filed for demolition permits, were approved and no longer exist.  However, after five similar cottages were granted demolition permits, the August 2002 request for 954 was denied.  Soon after, the cottage was declared a City Landmark, thus assuring it would never be torn down.

Without permission to demolish the cottage, the entire scope of the project changed.  The challenge for architect Howard Laks, AIA, of Howard Laks Architects would be to find a way to keep the integrity of the cottage while building three contemporary townhouses on the same lot. Laks had to work with the limitations of the lot, as architects always do; however the challenge was made greater by the restrictions of updating a landmarked building.  He also needed to make sure both parts of the project fit together and within the community.  Says Laks, “I have strong feelings about neighborhood compatibility.  Building size, scale and site orientation are dictated by its neighborhood context and the surrounding pedestrian uses.”

The 1,136-square-foot cottage is similar in size to many of the area’s condos and apartments. Though it is in good condition, it will need to be refurbished.  Currently, it sits behind a gate and overgrown brush and is difficult to see.  Once construction is complete, the cottage will actually be moved closer to the front of the property, visible to the neighborhood.  The two-story townhouses will rise behind it, taller and more modern, but still in sync with the early 20th century architecture.  They will range in size from 1,718 to 1,921 square feet.  During construction, the cottage will be moved for protection.

It was a long process for Laks and lawyer Kenneth Kutcher, who represents the owners of 954, also owners of additional properties in the neighborhood.  Lots of meetings and codes and commissions and reports had to be appeased before final approval of the project was finally given.  Both Laks and Kutcher have nothing but praise for all the people on the Planning Commission, Landmarks Commission and other city agencies that helped them through the long process.  Says Kutcher, “They [Landmarks Commission] have always been terrific and were supportive throughout.”  Laks echoes similar sentiments  towards the Planning Commission, calling them “extremely supportive.”

Since Laks is one of the most prominent architects in Santa Monica, if not the entire Westside and beyond, the Mirror asked him two questions believed to be on the minds of many Santa Monicans – Monster Mansions and “Green” Buildings.  Regarding Monster Mansions, Laks says they “hurt the community.  It’s all about the compatibility, everything from scale to setbacks.”

In terms of Green building in the City of Santa Monica, Laks does not find the City of Santa Monica to be a particularly “friendly Green environment.”  Continues Laks, “Architects need to integrate Sustainable Building Practices in their Architecture. The City of Santa Monica Municipal Code regarding ‘Solar Energy Design Standards’ also needs to be updated to include advancement in Sustainable Building Practices and Green technologies.  The City views itself as a ‘Green City,’ however, the Santa Monica Municipal Code does not support or provide incentives to achieve a fully LEED Certified Building.  I am currently working on a project in Santa Monica that requires 65 percent of the roof area dedicated for photovoltaic cells.  The current code (Solar Energy Design Standards does not allow more than 30 percent of the roof area to be photo or solar cells in that it defines solar cells as mechanical equipment.   Additionally, the code stipulates that roof-mounted solar collectors shall be placed in the location least visible from a public right-of-way without reducing the operating efficiency of the collectors. This seems shortsighted and difficult to achieve an energy efficient system.  The current ‘Solar Energy Design Standards’ (as written) in the code are minimal at best, and do not address many of the technological advances now available.” 

As for 954 5th Street, it should be breaking ground within a year.  Once finished, this “model project” might set the standard for developments in Santa Monica that incorporate existing structures with new ones.

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