Located on a Culver City hillside next to California’s newest state park, Marrakesh House doubles as a green residence and a venue for special events, art, and music. Filmmaker Chris Paine (director of the documentaries “Who Killed the Electric Car?” and “Revenge of the Electric Car”) brought together designers to transform a run-down mid-century modern home into a model for sustainable living in the 21st century. From solar power for home and cars, to outdoor tea-houses built entirely from recycled materials by the renowned LA artist Shrine, Chris and his team made every effort to create an environmentally friendly and fun place to live and entertain.
“Bringing people together has always been important to me, especially living in Los Angeles where everything is so spread out,” says Paine. “I wanted Marrakesh House to provide a relaxed artistic atmosphere that reflects my interests in different cultures and demonstrates eco-friendlier living to anyone who visits. I hope Marrakesh House proves that greener living can be artistic and fun.”
Paine traveled to Morocco in 2008 and discovered that the layouts of traditional Moroccan “riads” center on a courtyard, in a way that mirrors the layout of his new property. With Marrakesh and Los Angeles located on similar latitudes, each with desert topographies near high mountains, he decided to call his remodel “Marrakesh House” combining the home’s Mid-Century modern architecture with Islamic design motifs to forge a visual bridge between two cultures.
Paine committed to remodel the 4,300 square-foot house using environmentally friendly guidelines. He assembled a team of dedicated craftspeople, led by project manager, noted LEED AP, Shellie Collier. He also brought on board sponsors who were passionate about a reconstruction that would showcase greener living. When asked about their choices in planning the remodel, Shellie said, “I’m very glad we spent time considering how to take advantage of what the house already had instead of tearing everything down. Sometimes the future is about simply remaking the present.”
The team succeeded in making most changes to the house in accordance with the motto ‘reduce/reuse/recycle’. According to Collier, this motto means “using as much existing material as possible in order to significantly lower the carbon footprint during the remodeling process.” Two sets of solar arrays were installed on the roof to provide electrical power for both plug-in electric vehicles and the residence itself.
During reconstruction, the Marrakesh House team realized the ‘reduce/reuse/recycle’ theme by reusing lumber and soil from the original house, repurposing cement, and rebuilding the old kitchen cabinets into new bathroom cabinets. Materials that could not be used were sent to specialized reclamation. In the end, the Marrakesh House team managed to divert much of the construction debris from 1950s-1970s era construction from landfill into reuse.
Careful material selection during the remodel process allowed the house to evolve into a healthier, more environmentally conscious place to live. Formaldehyde-free construction materials, including insulation, drywall paper, cabinets and veneer, were employed wherever possible, which improved indoor air quality.
In building areas where new lumber was needed, the team chose wood that was Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified. “We’ve talked to many sources,” said Collier, “and FSC lumber is really worth the small amount extra you pay.” The team chose reclaimed barn wood for some projects as well as reused concrete from construction sites around the city for the retaining walls. For the floors, stone was selected because it endures hundreds of years and eventually decomposes into the earth.
With Southern California’s desert topography and drought conditions in mind, plumbing co-sponsor Toto-USA donated dual-flush toilets and low-flow faucets including a model that automatically shuts off after use for all bathrooms. Toto-USA showroom coordinator and interior designer Allan Dallatorre served as the bathroom design product specifier, working to make all the baths more sustainable. Dallatorre notes, “The Marrakesh show house contains some of the most water efficient fixtures that TOTO has to offer. Such as: HEF – High Efficiency Faucets, HES – High Efficiency Showers and HET – High Efficiency Toilets.” Pittsburgh Paint donated VOC-free (volatile organic compound free) paint for much of the entire floor plan. All of these decisions reduced the total carbon footprint of the house.
One artistic showcase of ‘reduce/reuse/recycle’ is in the remodeling of the courtyard. Rather than replacing permanently water-stained double paned patio windows with new glass, Paine secured Burning Man/Coachella Music Festival artist Shrine to paint the original glass in a Moroccan style and incorporate the existing watermarks into the design. The original beams that frame the central courtyard were carefully restored by local craftsmen to create an architectural space that brings the Moroccan “riad” feeling to life.
One of the most inspiring features of the house are two rooftop solar power systems. The first one (a 6.66 kWh array) generates roughly 11,000 kilowatts of residential power every year from 36 panels provided by original Marrakesh House co-sponsors Mitsubishi and REC Solar. Excess daytime solar electricity is traded with the grid for night power.
The second system (a 2.33 kWh array) creates 3,500 kilowatts of annual power for charging plug-in cars, bikes, or motorcycles. This Solar City designed system uses 12 panels mounted on the roof of the garage connected to residential chargers (see below!).
Since the cleanest energy in the world, is not using the energy in the first place, solar electricity is complemented by energy- efficiency everywhere in the home from appliances to lighting. Home lighting often accounts for up to 25% of a homes’ electricity use, so it’s far easier (and cheaper) to use smart lighting design then add new panels. Consequently, Marrakesh House uses an array of innovative light bulb technologies including dimmable compact fluorescent (CFL), cold cathode (CCFL), and solid-state light emitting diodes (LEDs).
“As electricity-saving goes, energy-efficient lighting represents enormous potential to reduce the production of climate changing carbon emissions. The better it looks and works, the faster it will be embraced by the public,” says lighting designer Chris Myers.
Chris added state-of-the-art, warm, dimmable LED striplights to grace the kitchen cabinets with 50% power-use less than typical fluorescents or 92% less than xenon or halogen tasklights. In the Moroccan Room, 5-watt “cold cathode” amp technology in the sconces provides sensual ambiance with lamps using 85% less electricity and lasting up to 25x longer than a normal 40-watt bulbs.
Outside, nighttime visitors are greeted at the entrance by the broad canopy of the grand-father palm illuminated with 15-watts of LED lamps that will perform their inviting magic every night for upto 13 years before they burn out. And the entire 1,000-square-foot courtyard landscape is illuminated using only (10) 3-watt LED lamps for a savings of 94% over conventional lights.
Lighting controls also increase the savings and energy-efficiency. As the most efficient and least polluting light bulb is a light that is off, in closets user-friendly motion sensor switches turn off some lights or fans when not needed. Selected dimmers throughout also allow greater control of ambiance while reducing energy use. Like surge-protectors on computers, the dimmers help protect the lamps so they last longer.
On the south side of the roof, a two-panel solar thermal array uses the sun to heat water for two of the bathrooms. The water is stored in a 97% efficient stainless steel water tank. On-demand tankless water heaters supplement the thermal array.
As a residence for the director of Who Killed the Electric Car? no garage would be complete without solar powered chargers. We’ve charged almost every kind of electric vehicle here…”‘ said Paine “…Nissan Leafs, Tesla’s Model S, BMW MiniEs, Chevy Volts, Honda Fits, e-bicycles, Toyota classic RAV4s, the new Prius-PlugIns, and the 2008 Tesla Electric Roadster featured in “Revenge of the Electric Car. “ During the remodeling, three 220volt charge points were installed in the garage fed by roof solar arrays. Other visitors to the garage include electric motorcycles and do-it yourself conversions like the Porsche Speedster designed by the husband of interior designer Scarlett Jackson, Greg “Gadget” Abbott. “Of course, you could plug most of these cars directly into a regular wall socket – it just takes longer that way and you don’t want guests staying too long,” jokes Paine. “It’s an amazing feeling to drive a car powered by sunlight captured on the roof of your garage. You definitely can’t do that with a gas car.”
The project’s commitment to ‘reduce/reuse/recycle’ continued beyond material selection and construction. Landscaper Clayton Winans and his team removed one of the two pre-existing lawns and transformed it into a side-yard catering area. They created outdoor flooring by choosing permeable decomposed granite over concrete.
Resolved to retain as many existing plants as possible in the remaining yard, Winans only introduced new flora that required minimal or no irrigation and selected as many native species as possible. To conserve water, high-efficiency nozzles and drip irrigation systems were installed across the grounds. Six area zones are timed specifically to conserve water.
The organic garden is a year-round “Victory Garden” designed by Christy Wilhelmi of co-sponsor Gardenerd www.gardenerd.com. “Having an organic garden in an urban environment means we’re less reliant on non-organic foods trucked into our cities. It supports both neighborhood and environment, just like the ‘victory gardens’ during World War II.” Wilhelmi created planter boxes made out of Trex Decking – a recycled material – and designed three seasons of crops to take advantage of Los Angeles’s climate and low-water irrigation. The yard also features shade and fruit trees selected by arborist John Lyons including mandarin, plum, apricot, avocado and lemon, to complement the garden.
The property’s eucalyptus trees were pruned to reduce fire hazards, and the larger branches were then repurposed as fencing around the property. A neighbor offered cuttings from his giant cactus plants for the property’s western front, and original hedge areas were restored with a mix of species to increase plant diversity.
Marrakesh House features a flexible central courtyard designed for private events and performances by musicians, actors and artists. Highlights in recent years have included stagings of Jane Austen Unscripted by LA’s renown theater group Impro Theater, and musical performances by the inimitable Ben Lee, Naked Rhythm, DJ Markus Wyatt and many others.
Of the many designers involved with the remodel, two created signature pieces. Interior designer Charlotte Jackson transformed a bedroom at the back of the house into a sublime space for meditation or relaxing “The Marrakesh Room”. Another artist, famed for his spectacular 2008 temple at Burning Man fabricated “Lemon Tree Teahouse” from found-objects including a chandelier and other cast-offs from the remodel. Shrine also rebuilt his Balinese style temple from the Symbiosis and Coachella festivals on the former site of a water intensive front lawn. In keeping with his ethic, Shrine also insisted that we transform (not replace) two damaged double paned windows of the original courtyard into painted Moroccan floral motifs.
In sum, Marrakesh House strives to bring mid-century modern into the contemporary age, with an artistic and enduring style focused on sustainability and inspiration.