David Hertz first discovered his passion for the outdoors through the ocean. Growing up in Malibu in the ’60s and ’70s, Hertz “basically watched the Santa Monica Bay become a giant septic tank,” he recalls. “I surf regularly, and that put me in contact with the natural world and the impact the built environment has on it.”
Hertz also lost both his parents to what he thinks were environmentally induced cancers — his father, a surgeon and inventor, to asbestos exposure; and his mother, an artist, to printmaking chemicals. It’s easy to see the mark Hertz’s parents left on his work, both in its experimental, artful approach and its focus on sustainability. With his firm SEA, which stands for Studio for Environmental Architecture (and suggests a “sea change” in awareness, he adds), he has dedicated his work almost exclusively to sustainable design.
“In early projects, we would really infiltrate and educate our clients on sustainability,” says Hertz, whose own home incorporates solar cells and has a chemical-free pool, while his office is aiming for a platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. "Now we have clients that are predisposed to seek us out because they want it, so all our work has that focus.”
The 47-year-old’s approach starts with sustainable, site-specific design. Small-scale structures like the Split House in Venice, completed in the spring of 2008, exploit lot constraints to maximize space and efficiency. The property is bounded by two narrow alleyways and a small street. It’s a solid block-like structure, split completely down the middle — hence the name — which creates a second detached building that houses a garage and second-floor recreation room; a bridge connects the two structures. The main house is a cube that can be entered either through the front or the side. A courtyard requested by the client extends between the second building and the main house. By developing a loose atrium between two separate buildings instead of a more traditional variety enclosed by four walls, Hertz ensured that natural ventilation and light can filter into both the outdoor space and deeper into the back side of the main house.
Like all of Hertz’s projects, Split House is passive solar, plug-in-ready for solar panels, and made entirely of nontoxic materials. It also features Syndecrete, a precast, ightweight, nontoxic concrete that Hertz invented in 1983 for his own use and was then adopted by others who loved the material’s flexibility in integrating unusual materials like recycled vinyl record bits into its mix. “It was really a progenitor for a lot of innovative environmental building products,” Hertz says.
The architect’s much-discussed 747 Wing House, which is still under construction, appropriates parts of a retired jet for a multi-structured residence in the Santa Monica Mountains. “I drew a section that was curved like the hull of a ship” for the 55-acre site, he recalls, “and when I completed hat ellipse, I realized it looked like an airplane wing.” Knowing that he was looking at an expensive roof, Hertz opted instead to “repurpose a real one.” An airplane wing, he found, already offered the means “to achieve the highest strength and the lightest weight.” Even better? “This is a 100 percent post-consumer product, and it’s a $200 million airplane that we bought for $30,000 — the price of its primary raw material, aluminum.”
But 747 Wing House’s eco-credibility extends beyond clever reuse. In building the home, which is now underway, Hertz is adopting a “large/less” strategy that he says allows for a few massive pieces to be transported to the site in a somewhat heroic fashion: Five major freeway lanes in L.A. were closed to transport the wings. Ultimately, the approach saves on resources, time, and material, since construction typically involves “thousands of disparate pieces traveling long distances,” Hertz says, “none of which fit, and 30 percent of which end up in the trash.”
Everything Hertz designs and builds embodies the spirit of his childhood, with influences including anything from surfing to backpacking to pouring molten metal into an empty pool to make sculptures. It’s all about “mining the creative potential of materials and repurposing them in disparate ways, and rethinking the way buildings are made,” he says. Indeed, gas-guzzling 747s are not often viewed as harbingers of sustainability. But in the hands of an innovator like Hertz, wings once again embody the spirit of ingenuity and progress they offered when they first streaked across the sky.
Story by Amber Bravo. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008.