Livable L.A.

A new nonprofit brings green building and affordable housing together for Angelenos.

As a graduate student in University of Florida’s architecture program, Lawrence Scarpa was inspired by the natural design features of the region’s “cracker” homes, with their dogtrot floor plans that cleverly adapted to harsh climatic conditions. “No one called it ‘sustainable building’ back then,” recalls Scarpa, now 43. “I didn’t know that what I was doing was green architecture.” His Santa Monica-based firm, Pugh + Scarpa Architects, has since carved out a reputation for integrating ecological principles into stylish private homes. But in his practice Scarpa has discovered that being green still isn’t easy.

“People still believe it costs more money to be environmentally correct,” he complains. “They say they can’t afford to do it, and I say they can’t afford not to.” Frustrated by the slow rate of acceptance for ideas whose time has come, Scarpa and a few like-minded souls founded Livable Places, a nonprofit committed to building green affordable housing on challenging urban sites.

Livable Place’s first public project is Colorado Court, one of the country’s first affordable housing projects to generate its own energy. The 44 single-room-occupancy units feature an innovative gas-powered turbine heat-recovery system that services the building’s hot-water needs. A solar-panel system supplies additional energy, and the project also borrows energy-saving features such as breezeways, high ceilings, and awnings from the region’s pre-air-conditioning domestic vernacular. The new building—developed in conjunction with the City of Santa Monica, a local community corporation, and a team of expert consultants—was nominated one of 12 finalists worldwide in this year’s World Habitat Awards.

But Colorado Court is more than just a showcase for green design. “Of course we’re interested in creating new and innovative environments,” Scarpa says. “What we’re not interested in doing is keeping all the information to ourselves.” The project is proving to be a magnet for design professionals, who have flocked by the hundreds to tour the building and attend workshops. “We’re actively trying to spread the info on a how-to basis,” Scarpa adds. “Systems, resourcing—we take away a large part of the learning curve.”

A far more ambitious undertaking—and one of three flagship developments under way—is a 120-unit low-income housing project slated for an undeveloped 12-acre stretch of real estate in the Los Angeles community of Carson. On an unassuming site Livable Places will build the winning entry in a national competition sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. The design program takes a holistic approach that embraces larger planning issues such as mixed-use development, ample green space, and a pedestrian-friendly streetscape that strikes a balance between private cars and public transit.

Ironically Scarpa’s firm—as the contest’s sponsor—won’t be in the running. “If we were in the competition,” Scarpa jokes, “there’s no question who would win. But seriously, there’s a lot of talent out there and a lot of room for everyone. When I was back in school, somebody told me you can get a lot more done if you don’t try to take credit for everything.”

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