Case Study: House Noir by Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects

There’s no denying it’s frightening to build in certain areas of California these days. Fires, floods, earthquakes, and mudslides are just a few weapons in nature’s arsenal facing architects, builders, and homeowners. Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects took on these challenges and more when they set out to design House Noir on an oceanfront site in Malibu—one of the last with such close proximity to the water. 

Architects and builders talk about “unbuildable sites,” and often they just mean difficult sites that add complexity and cost to design and construction. This one, however, was truly unbuildable, given current building restrictions, rising tides, and potential damage caused by wave thrusts. However, Lorcan was motivated to find solutions to these and other obstacles in part because the project was for a close friend. But it also resonated with him because a previous house he did in Malibu launched his career as an independent architect. 

It was the 1980s and Lorcan was fresh from stints working on important buildings for Steven Holl and I.M. Pei (including the addition to the Louvre Museum), when his parents approached him to design a house for them. “I’m forever grateful for that,” he recalls. “My parents said, ‘OK, here’s an opportunity, now show us what you can do.’ The house got published in Architectural Record and really gave me my start. Houses are very important to me. They’re an opportunity to invent and to speculate.” 

Surveying the firm’s portfolio since then, it’s obvious that invention and speculation are at play at every building scale. Custom residential is one component, but at the opposite end of the spectrum are the firm’s contributions to social housing, civic and cultural buildings, and an array of commercial work. Some projects hit on multiple building types, too, with the added layers of adaptive reuse and renovation. 

What distinguishes LOHA’s body of work is not just its architectural excellence, but that it soars so high despite multiple impediments to its success. Problem sites are not a rare occurrence but a common given condition for most projects the firm takes on. So, too, are building restrictions, neighborhood constraints, and a host of other hurdles that could fell a lesser firm. 

Unbreakable

For responsible professionals, there’s no doubt that climate change is here already and destined to worsen the effects of nature’s dark side in the days ahead. Lorcan knew he could surmount the issues that had plagued this problem site to this point, but he also understood he needed to bolster it against a precarious future as well. 

“Our client’s perspective and ours is always, ‘how do we deal with the future?’ We’re very cautious of that in how we design,” he explains. “We want to make sure that if, 20 or 30 years from now, the sand has washed away from the beach that the foundation of the house is still intact. And the way we ended up building it, it may be the only thing left in place.”

To ensure that future, the team elected to install a caisson foundation, even though one was not required by code. Used for bridges, dams, and ship repair, it’s ideal for high water locations. “We had to overlay a sea wall, a caisson foundation, and raise the building 20 feet above the sand and ocean,” he explains. “Even simple storms create wave thrusts, and the nature of storms is becoming significantly more robust. So, first we had to understand the wave uprush issue, and that helped us determine the highest breaking wave elevation. The engineer recommended drilled, cast-in-place piles for their bearing and uplift capabilities. Existing soil was porous residual, so we had to go through that and drill below to unweathered bedrock. We ultimately went down 7 or 8 feet into the bedrock, and probably about 30 feet down overall.”

The sea wall was another tight fit on the narrow, 22-foot-wide site. “Our wave rush study required a bulkhead and to return the bulkheads on the sides. The projected wave uprush limit will be 12 feet upward toward the Pacific Coast Highway. We returned it to 20 feet. We also had to return the walls to protect the leach field for the septic system.”

Unbuildable

With the seaside engineering puzzles conquered, the next dragons to slay were the building restrictions. They were the real reason no one had yet dared to put anything—anything at all—on the site. “Given the building requirements to include a garage, an 1,800-square-foot house, and the stairs to reach it—all within 2-to-3-foot setbacks on either side—there was no way to do it,” he says. “This is why the lot had stood empty for many, many years. 

“But we were able to interpret the codes and go for several variances,” he says, pulling rabbits out of hats. “We pleaded hardship and worked with the city to get the setbacks reduced.” Even with a little setback forgiveness, it was still a game of inches to get the 19-foot-wide garage on the 22-foot site. 

Indeed, the entire envelope of the house played the inches game—tucking in two levels of living space, plus a loft and roof deck, within the 28-foot height restrictions. The loft or mezzanine, as Lorcan calls it, can double as additional sleeping space, enabling the two-bedroom house to wedge in a few more overnight visitors. A steel mesh central stair conveys light down from the roof deck into the open living spaces and the small, jewel-like Bulthaup kitchen. “It’s very compressed but functional,” says Lorcan of the kitchen. “For the interiors, we wanted to keep them light, transparent, open, and inviting. Lighter-colored materials help bounce the daylight. And the stair, as a floating piece, emphasizes that lightness. In such a narrow, tight space, we did not want a heavy stair.”

The house borrows an even greater sense of expansiveness from its views of the ocean and beach. The slightly trapezoidal skew of the lot allowed the architects to push window walls and decks into the sightlines down the beach, further activating the rooms within and the tiered outdoor living areas. It’s almost like floating on a cruise ship. “It’s rare when your backyard is the Pacific Ocean, so you have to take advantage of that,” says the architect. “And we were lucky to be able to get in a roof deck, too, which I consider essential to capture the views of the ocean.” Combined with the window walls and the roof deck, the stairs help ventilate the house with ocean breezes. And those projecting decks help shade interiors from southern sun. 

Paint It Black

Along with the cataclysmic forces of sudden, dramatic storms, beach locations are also notorious for the slow poison of salt air. For the home’s exterior, the team wanted to mitigate future weather damage, while at the same time combating the prevailing banal architecture (the home is flanked by nondescript if pricey neighbors in hues of beige and brown). Steel was a no-go because of its vulnerability to corrosion, so the architects elected to wrap the house in aluminum painted a deep graphite color. 

“The houses on either side are taller, because height restrictions have changed over the years,” Lorcan says. “Our house was obviously smaller, so we needed to give it some presence. We took the roof and folded it back by 45 degrees at 18 feet high. And we created a standing seam solution, because the fins add layer and depth. The dark color further differentiates it from the beigey, stucco neighbors. The paint is very durable and has a warranty for 30 years.

“We wanted a durable envelope,” he continues, “but one that was also architecturally inventive. The architectural idea was to make the geometry reflective of the building envelope restrictions. In our work, we always push ideas and materiality.”

At the street, the house conveys that image of durability and strength, appearing almost like a fiesty clenched fist. On the water side, it opens up to views and light, but its knife-edged decks suggest the house would slice through the onslaught of storm-driven winds and surf. It’s an elegant but fierce little house, one that prevailed through a myriad of obstacles to take its place along the gorgeous Malibu waterfront. 

And it’s a case study in what Lorcan’s firm does so well. “We had to mitigate rising tides and other very complex problems, but we were able to bring this house to life,” he says. “But problem solving is what we’re known for. We have a reputation for taking on steep sites, or designing around historical landmarks, and we do other types of projects that are very challenging. People approach us with very difficult problems, because they expect us to rise above them with good architecture.” 


Plans and Drawings


Project Credits

House Noir

Malibu, California

ARCHITECT: Principal-in-charge Lorcan O’Herlihy, FAIA; project managers Damian Possidente, AIA, and Kathy Williams; Donnie Schmidt; Lucia Sanchez Ramirez; Matthias Lenz; Olga Mesa; Claudia Lugo, Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects, Los Angeles, Calif.

BUILDER: Roberto Ramos, JRR Construction, Inc., Mission Hills, Calif. 

PROJECT SIZE: 1,598 square feet (house); 375 square feet (garage)

SITE SIZE: 3,813 square feet

CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld

PHOTOGRAPHER: Paul Vu Photography; Berlyn Photography


Key Products

CABINETRY: Alder veneer

CLADDING/ROOFING: Metal Sales aluminum vertical seam panels 

DECKING: Ipe

EXTERIOR PAINT: Valspar matte black Flurothane Coastal coating

FLOORING: Bamboo, concrete slab, sisal carpet, FIBRA floor tiles by Atlas Concorde 

INTERIOR PAINT: Benjamin Moore

KITCHEN SYSTEM: Bulthaup

LIGHTING: Bega, NoraLighting, Louis Poulsen, Luminii

RADIANT FLOOR: Momento

RAILINGS: Jakob Rope Systems Webnet

SHOWER HEAD: Rainmaker

THERMAL/MOISTURE BARRIERS: Crossfield Products Class A Dex-O-Tex roofing membrane

TOILETS: Starck wall hung

WASHER/DRYER: Bosch

WINDOWS/WALL SYSTEMS: Fleetwood

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