Revisiting our own assumptions as the project and market evolves...

By 2011, our lifeboat strategy for this triplex property was working out quite well. We had spent almost three years living in the smaller, older and un-updated front unit and rented out the newer and larger rear unit to cover housing costs.  This afforded enough financial flexibility to get into position for another project.  This time around, we focused on the middle unit. 

The master plan established when the property was initially purchased is to not increase density or building area at the expense of spatial quality and to improve each unit in stages with simultaneous owner occupancy and maintaining a revenue stream from a remaining tenant.  The front and rear units would be expanded up onto additional floors and the middle unit would be left a single story as a sacrifice for maximizing open space and exterior walls for the other two.

The design for the middle unit was crafted within the limits of this framework.  This created a juxtaposition of contrasting design aspirations.  As the market and project parameters evolve, the design responded accordingly.  While expanding the middle unit only on the ground floor yielded a mere 1000 s.f., it remained our intention to match the program that fit comfortably in the larger 1250 s.f. rear unit.  The condensing of the program was accomplished via efficiency tactics.   The use of an open plan, elevated ceiling heights and ample envelope transparency contributed to the volume and lightness of the living spaces.

The program was reshuffled so that the private bedrooms and baths were located on the north side, while the public living areas and entry were oriented to the south along the driveway. The existing unit had been inversely oriented.  The miserly yard space was addressed with a large roof deck and resurfacing of the driveway with landscaping.  While the southern expansion could have pushed all the way out to the driveway, we elected to limit the floor area in favor of some relief for a covered entry porch and stoop and created an opportunity for some architecture.  With the alignment of the existing foundation stem wall and the shallow addition, it was possible to detail the addition as an enlarged bay window effortlessly floating over the grade and cleanly finishing off the roof line above. 


We find green and sustainable design to be as important as the next practice, however, tight budgets typically allow for few dramatic features.  If the money were available, then green roofs, photovoltaics, gray water systems, etc. would be all the rage.   So we have to sneak sustainability in via an efficiency of design and a more subtle and nuanced process.  This usually means lots of cross ventilation for natural cooling and no more than a tankless water heater for equipment.  For the former, ventilation is drawn through the abundant operable openings on the south elevation to a door in the bathroom on the north.  This bathroom is directly on axis with the center of the unit as well as the hallway so it is rather effective at creating a bottleneck condition or something equivalent to a breezeway or dogtrot.  Though not formally interesting, the programmatic reuse of a private space as facilitator of this natural cooling effect is not altogether an un-innovative solution.  Similarly, the penthouse access and stairwell to the roof deck does act like a thermal chimney when the clerestory windows are open and releases the hot air that is collected on the ceiling.  This is contrary to our previous belief that this concept only worked in pretty diagrams with swooping arrows of hot air compliantly moving up and out of the building carrying with it the unwanted heat gain.   

With every project, the bulk of the cost savings is applied towards an architectural feature not normally possible or affordable.  On this one, we used fiber cement siding for the building exterior in lieu of cement plaster, which is commonly found in our projects. Stucco is the default finish because it is cheap and requires low maintenance. The siding was installed over a rain screen drainage layer with a Tyvek building wrap.  This system allows a better-ventilated building envelope as oppose to the moisture build-up that occurs in the porous and slow-percolating stucco.  This moisture causes problems over time that deteriorates the building wrap, encourages the growth of mold and causes cracking.  The rain screen also allows the two sides of the siding to normalize under symmetrical atmospheric conditions so that warping is minimized. Though fiber cement panels are rather inert to any kind of warping or deterioration.  This rear ventilated layer also provides added R-value for insulation by providing an air gap and a thermal break from finish panel to structure. So it effectively doubles as a sunscreen as well.  This is quite fitting considering it is located in LA where there is far more days of sun than rain.  Architecturally, the panelized siding is meant to contrast from its adjacent units to read distinctively as its own.  It’s also painted green because if the limited green features would not technically make the building LEED certifiable, then at least it would literally be green in color.  The siding was also meant to be readily removable and easily modified to accommodate the future alteration and improvement of the front and final unit.    


Multi-Family Dwelling, Los Angles CA,

Client:  Yu2e

Architect:  Bill Tsui

Engineer:  Irene Yu

Builder:  Bill Tsui  

Zone: R3-1

Lot Area:  6875 s.f.

Construction: Type V - B 

Completion:  December 2011


completed images



Middle Unit Renovation and expansion of a Triplex.

Two bedroom + two baths

Kitchen       Living

Dining         Roof Deck 


Unit Area - 1000 s.f.

Roof Deck - 400 s.f.

3 two 1 triplex