A Tract Home Is Modernized while Adhering to Challenging Guidelines

tract house

Any home retrofit is a balancing act. On the one hand, there is the clients’ vision for their home: how it could reflect their aesthetic preferences, sync with their lifestyles and become a place uniquely their own. On the other hand, there are the realities of working with existing conditions: immovable walls, mechanical and structural systems to design around and building codes limiting what can be changed.

The clients admire Japanese karesansui, traditional rock gardens intended for viewing from a single stationary position. Tim Gorter Architect created a residential experience uniquely attuned to them.

It is a complex puzzle in any circumstance. All the more so when the clients have lived in the home for more than 30 years.

Such was the case for the modernization of a modest tract home in the Mar Vista neighborhood of Los Angeles. After more than a quarter-century living there, the clients had a deep connection to the space, but it was too cramped to host guests; the interiors lacked sunlight; the barren front lawn made the home feel exposed to the street; and its design was out of step with the clients’ mid-century sensibility.

The aspirations were clear. But how could a redesign—up against challenges like a tight site, a replace that California code prohibited moving and a low roof that could not be raised—deliver the open, day- lit, modernist home the clients envisioned? The challenges for Tim Gorter Architect (TGA) were two-fold: First, inspire the clients to see their home with fresh eyes and discover new possibilities; second, develop a design that negotiates complex existing conditions to bring new life and beauty to an old home.


The first puzzle piece to fall into place was the roof. Before the renovation, the pitched roof threw the elevation out of balance and felt out-of-place in a neighborhood of mid-century modern residences. More, it sat low on the structure and had deep eaves, making the interiors feel cramped and cutting them off from sunlight. But, because any changes to the roof could not alter the existing building envelope, there was precious little room for change.

The solution: an ultra-low-profile butterfly-wing roof system that—with a depth of just 10 inches—makes space for clerestory windows without raising the building’s overall height. The new roof uses W10x100 steel I-beams to support the long spans and cantilever, adding opportunities for window exposure to fill the home with sunlight from a high angle and enliven the space with dramatic shadows.

BEFORE: Owners of a modest tract home in the Mar Vista neighborhood of Los Angeles were interested in modernizing their home. The couple had lived in the home more than 30 years.

The added window exposure had a second, unexpected benefit: The taller windows at the back of the house open a distant view to the Hollywood Sign, a landmark the clients never before realized they could see from their property.

The butterfly-wing roof became an organizing principle for the entire exterior redesign. It cantilevers toward the street, visually connecting a new glass and steel volume on the one side with an existing garage on the other. The addition balances the house’s massing, complementing the garage, which had previously extended awkwardly from the main structure. It makes room for a home office, bedroom, two bathrooms and a laundry room, adding much-needed living space to the home. Full-height aluminum-framed windows wrap the home office, mirroring a steel screen added to the garage to bring harmony to the front elevation.

The cantilevered roof also defines the entry sequence, extending over a terraced walkway that cascades down from the front door to the street. The walkway snakes around a large tree in the front yard to create a sense of privacy that had previously been lacking.

Here was another opportunity to create a residential experience uniquely attuned to the married couple. As avid travelers, the clients admired Japanese karesansui, traditional rock gardens intended for viewing from a single stationary position. As the light on the karesansui changes over the course of the day, the viewer can contemplate it in all its moods and characters.

TGA incorporated the karesansui between the walkway and the home office, giving a full view of it from the desk. A keyhole cut into the cantilevered stretch of the roof creates a play of light and shadow on the garden that the clients can enjoy as the working day draws on.

PHOTOS: Andy Wang, W Architectural Photography

About the Author

Tim Gorter, AIA, NCARB
Tim Gorter, AIA, NCARB, is founder and principal architect of Tim Gorter Architect. His skill with design, programming, site analysis, strategic facility planning, and design and construction management has benefited a wide spectrum of clients.

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