The warm, honey-hued gate to retired architect Walter Brooks’ Point Richmond, California, home glows in the early afternoon light. Citrus fruits hang heavy on the trees, and shimmering ponds punctuate the grounds. On this Edenic 50-by-150-foot landscape rests a house built of plastic and steel called Lumiere: an acrylic hunk of faceted amber built to resemble a Mayan temple and function with the efficiency of a ship. This somewhat anachronistic structure might seem the least likely place to look for modern, sustainable building cues; but there is much to be learned from Brooks’ approach. Lumiere shows how a family can actively participate in building a home that is genuinely sensitive to its surroundings. 

The diminutive 700-square-foot residence  overlooks the San Francisco Bay and has plum views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city skyline. Brooks acquired the lot in 1972 for about $18,000; he, his wife, Jean and their four children built the house over the course of ten years, completing the entire project for close to $40,000. They assembled the exterior skin with hand-cut acrylic shingles and worked from top to bottom, using the structure’s steel frame as a ladder as they built their way down. “The secret is to take the same quality of the acrylic, which is this shiny, reflective surface, and surround it with another shiny surface that reflects light,” explains Brooks. “It’s the water that adjusts the house to the landscape.” 

Indeed, the skin of the home mimics the play of light off of the surrounding water—and it is also one of the house’s most eco-friendly features. The resilient acrylic is long lasting and its translucence helps feed a passive solar heating system. Lumiere’s landscape also encourages a more conscientious lifestyle: Year-round the Brookses eat food from their garden, which essentially encompasses the entire yard. And because the family opts for a small living space, they require less energy and the land feels less impact. “This [house] proposes new ways of looking at the planning of residential spaces,” Brooks says. “Its essential premise is the use of minimums.” 

Lumiere’s floor plan is based on a ship’s, with all the plumbing concentrated in a central core. The galley kitchen has only two burners, an oven, a microwave and an under-the-counter refrigerator. Lumiere’s few furnishings include four chairs and a built-in conversation pit (which acts as both the dining and living area). There are no beds in the house; instead, sunken floor spaces for daytime lounging are turned into beds at night with a blanket and pillow. The one doorknob in the entire house is for the bathroom. 

“If our houses were truly reflective of their occupants’ lifestyles, there would be far more variety in the composition of our present architecture,” Brooks says. Lumiere captures the experimental spirit that he feels is essential to worthwhile work. He completed nearly 40 projects in his 50-year career, focusing primarily on energy-efficient, biomorphic homes. Most of these are also aggressively small, with a minimum of furniture and passive heating and cooling systems. 

“Once a year, I go out with long brushes and scrub the house down with soap and water,” Brooks says. “And it just glistens like a jewel.” Decades after those first acrylic panels went up, “the house looks brand new.” So, too, do the ideas that went into it: Architecture that considers landscape, orientation and efficiency may seem simplistic, but its impact is manifold—particularly, Brooks would add, for the people that live in it.

Story by Amber Bravo. This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

To the lighthouse
Architect Walter Brooks' self-described "little house of light" delivers big ideas for living simply and sustainably.