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07.27.2012
House> Francois Perrin
An impossibly steep site in the Hollywood Hills is tamed for a house of stacked layers.
The house's stacked levels provide shade for one another.
Michael Wells

LA architect Francois Perrin grew up in France watching James Bond movies and dreaming of someday building one of the villains’ epic modernist houses. It would be perched on a mountaintop or in some other seemingly impossible-to-reach location.

His dream finally came true, minus the villain part, when Perrin was commissioned to build a 3,000-square-foot glass house on an extraordinarily steep site just around the corner from the Hollywood sign.

In fact, when you look at the precarious landscape around the house, it’s impossible not to wonder just how the architect was able to pull it off. Perrin said it was pretty simple and akin to building a gigantic staircase, actually a giant concrete retaining wall, and then stacking the house—a series of terraced glass boxes—on top of it.

 
Interior spaces are connected with outdoor spaces (left). The Hollywood sign looms in the background (right).
 

Perrin actually embedded the retaining wall and the floor-to-ceiling glass-clad boxes into the earth, keeping the house remarkably temperate. The dug-in aspect also helps block the harsh sunrays that a house perched on top of a cliff usually suffers from. In addition, the stacking of the cantilevered roofs creates shading for each successive level, like a pagoda.

Such delightfully low-tech sustainability also includes a great deal of cross ventilation, made possible through huge sliding glass doors on multiple frontages, and by smaller windows embedded into the glass panels that can be left open even after the sliders are closed. Stacked stairways create a chimney effect, forcing hot air up and out.

But the house is also quite high-tech. Louvers along the side are filled with rainwater—collected from the roof—which help warm the home’s water when heated by the sun. Water-filled tubes under the concrete floors and even under the cement patio keep surfaces cool while also heating the water in the pool. Many of these elements were produced by the home’s owner, Yves Lefay, owner of Eliosolar, which specializes in “architectural hybrid shades.”

The open staircase creates a chimney effect to draw heat out of the house.
 

On the construction side, building a behemoth staircase was not so easy. To support the perched home, 30 to 40 builders at a time dug 41 caissons; often the builders were supported as they worked only by ropes.

As a result, the house, with its bermed siting and three large glass boxes—a studio below; guest rooms, kids rooms, and an entrance above; and master bedroom and living room on top—feels like a cave that quickly opens up and extends outward. Large decks hanging off each box create more square footage and make the outdoor space almost as plentiful as the indoor.

From the outside, its dark steel frame and reflective glass give the house what Perrin describes as “a tendency to disappear” into the surrounding vegetation, a goal of the architect, who hopes to add still more vegetation and can’t wait for what is already there to eventually envelop the house. It’s a refreshingly sensitive approach in a landscape of often ego-driven hillside houses. Besides, if you’re going to defeat James Bond, you don’t want to stand out, do you?

Sam Lubell