Conditional-use permits allow for flexibility in zoning regulations but have been the bane of many a home builder and developer. But for Los Angeles–based architect Martin Fenlon, the restriction on this lot in Hermon, just outside downtown L.A., may as well have been a sign that said, “Buy me.”
Fenlon had worked out of a live/work loft downtown for eight years, so when he and his wife considered buying a property for their young family, that flexibility was a priority. They settled on a lot with a 1920s bungalow and a commercial building that was occupied by a café, with the eventual goal of turning it into a space for his practice.
But first, the site had to be livable, and Fenlon took on the renovation of the 960-square-foot bungalow as his first design/build project.
“I’ve worked as a carpenter over the years, and it’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing,” he says. “Every few years, I just get this itch to build, and I really wanted to get hands-on with this.”
And get hands-on he did, serving as architect, general contractor, and structural engineer. Working with a team of two, he knocked out the interior, exposing the original wood beams and finishing the walls with white plaster. Walnut floors complete the minimalist space.
The exterior got a face-lift as well: Fenlon clad the main volume of the house in charred cedar planks laid directly over the original tongue-and-groove wood siding, which now acts as the sheathing layer. But in the front, things get more dramatic, and more inspired. Here, Fenlon used clear cedar to provide a warm contrast against the dark cladding. But because the tight site left no room for any kind of yard, at least in this first phase of construction, Fenlon moved to the front the outdoor space that would traditionally be to the side or back of the property. A bench runs the length of the façade, its back rising to form the handrail and enclosure for a new porch and entry stair.
The bench was actually conceived as a planter. “I was trying for parallel planes,” Fenlon says. “This started as an archetypal modernist image, like Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, with two hovering horizontal planes at a very generic level. But I realized that you could actually sit on the bottom like a bench, and it just made things easier.”
But for Fenlon, it was also an exercise in how to approach infill lots in gentrifying neighborhoods.
“It seems to be the trend that when people fix up these houses, they do a big fence in the front because the neighborhood is still a little rough around the edges,” Fenlon says, noting that that was his original plan as well. “But after tearing out the original fence, I really liked how open and uncluttered it was, and I realized that I could make a statement by opening it up to the street rather than closing it off.”
And it has become a place for the family to gather, neighborhood kids to climb, and a way to meet neighbors—one the family intends to use even after the second phase of construction affords them a more traditional backyard.
Project: Fenlon House, Los Angeles
Architect/Builder/Structural Engineer: Martin Fenlon Architecture, Los Angeles
Living Space: 960 square feet