The idea of wrapping a house in giant graphic stickers, like the ones used for ads on city buses, appealed to Eric Chu the moment his architect suggested it.
But then, Chu, 38, rarely shies away from trying something new. After becoming a founder of a computer hardware and software business when he was barely 20, Chu, who was born in Taiwan, owned a restaurant, invested in real estate and designed furniture that he welded himself.
As he put it, “I definitely approach life with a ‘why not?’ philosophy.”
Like many Los Angeles homeowners whose property is zoned R-2 (or two-family), Chu had decided to replace the single, modest home on his lot with two houses — one to live in and the other to rent out.
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But as spacious backyards throughout the city give way to revenue-earning second units, the land between the front and back houses can be odd territory, where privacy is elusive.
Applying colorful, blown-up photos to the exterior glass walls — allowing daytime views out, but not in — was the unconventional solution proposed by Chu’s architect, Whitney Sander, who runs Sander Architects with his wife, Catherine Holliss.
For a lot nearly 150 feet deep but little more than 40 feet wide, Sander designed two three-story houses — Chu’s 2,200-square-foot unit and a slightly larger one behind — separated by a drive-in courtyard.
Sander was planning to use translucent acrylic panels for the two walls that face each other when he chanced upon something much better: a perforated, adhesive-backed film, custom-printed by Astek Wallcoverings, which was suitable for floor-to-ceiling windows.
A close-up photo Chu had snapped of a sapling, and then computer-manipulated, became the wrapping for those two facades.
Suddenly, they could have it all: daylight, views out and privacy. (The sustainability-minded architects were also pleased to discover that the film offered another benefit: a 50 percent reduction in sun infiltration.)
For the other facades, the designers chose a different strategy, veiling them in a sunshade of diagonal aluminum angles. But long before the building’s skin went up, the skeleton was stopping traffic, Sander says: “People would pull up in their cars and ask, ‘What’s going on?’”
Passers-by were curious about the diagonal screen, as well as the quickly assembled structural-steel frame. Common to much of Sander’s work, it is a custom-modified prefab system of recycled-metal components typically used in pre-engineered warehouses or agricultural buildings.
One of those who stopped was Lucas Ma, an architect-turned-real-estate-investor, who was eyeing the rental unit. After it was completed two years ago, he and his wife, Joyce Wong, moved in with their young daughter. Chu now lives in the two-bedroom front house with his longtime girlfriend, Katie Freeman, 29, a massage therapist; one of the bedrooms is his office.
The paired town houses, which cost about $1.4 million, share a material and stylistic sensibility, with rooftop decks, floors of concrete, hardwood or bamboo, vivid ceramic tile, raw-steel stairways and professional-grade appliances. But they differ in layout: While the soaring, double-height main space in the tenant’s unit is a kitchen-and-dining area, it’s a living room in the owner’s home.
“The front house feels very well suited to my needs,” Chu says. But since moving in, he adds, he has learned at least one surprising thing: During the day, light-colored graphics offer more privacy than dark ones.
Still, “that’s an easy fix,” he says. “We could swap the image. Maybe next time, it’ll be a photo of dandelions.”