Lettuce Office Profile, The Eastsider LA, January 2013

Michael Chung (left), Kara Bartelt and Nicolas Saez of Lettuce Office/Photo courtesy Lettuce Office

A unique project such as Occidental College’s solar array needed a unique design team, which the school found with Lettuce Office, a small firm comprised of three principals, two whom live in Highland Park.

Kara Bartelt and husband Michael Chung started Lettuce in 2004 with offices in Hollywood; they have since moved to downtown Los Angeles and added a third partner, Nico Saez. Bartelt and Chung have lived in Highland Park since 2006, having moved into the area because of “the great community and plenty of historic houses. We love seeing all the families walking their kids to school, too.”

The team jumped on the chance to create new thinking for Oxy’s installation of ground-based solar panels rather than the utilitarian designs that are typical for large scale solar projects. Bartelt, an adjunct associate professor at USC’s School of Architecture, is fascinated on the integration of technology and architecture in the environment.

“For us, this [project] was a perfect example of that blending,” she says.

First and foremost, the team wanted the design to be pleasing to the eye from whatever direction it was viewed. After the swooping curve pattern was approved, they painstakingly created intricate renderings and canvassed various neighborhoods to see how the finished product would be seen. That hard work is paying off, thinks Bartelt.

While some of the more than 5,000 panels are installed above a canopy over a campus parking lot, the most eye-catching element of the Occidental array will be the panels that are mounted two to three feet above the ground and  hug the topography a hillside  in a curving design based on a hysteresis loop, a mathematical expression that describes the result of an alternating magnetic field applied to ferromagnetic material.

“Just the other day, I came up Ave 49 from York and had a good view of it,” she says. “It’s not a typical array; it’s more art than array.”

Involved in the project for now three years, the team meets at the construction site every two weeks to make sure that the 20 x 30 foot panels are being installed according to plans. Joining them is Oxy’s Professor of Physics Daniel Snowden-Ifft, who has been involved in the project nearly since its beginnings.

“We have walkie talkies and go back and forth saying, ‘Tilt it to the left a bit, now up, to the right,’” says Bartelt about getting the angles just right.

Right now, the firm is active in residential and business designs as well as graphics for branding and marketing. While the Oxy solar array is scheduled to be completed this spring, Bartelt says the team would welcome more solar projects.

“It doesn’t take much to make a big impact,” she says. “I can’t wait to when that final panel is placed and it’s all done.”

Oxy Solar Array, The Eastsider LA, Jan. 2013

(Photo courtesy of Occidental College)

Occidental College prepares to plug in to solar power

By Brenda Rees

After experiencing a series of setbacks to the initial schedule, the $6.8 million 1-megawatt solar array at Occidental College continues to move ahead with the plan to have the entire project plugged-in, hooked up and generating power by the college’s Founder Day on April 20, 2013.

Construction of the ground-mounted array began about a year ago with the hopes it would have been completed by the spring. However, engineering issues and construction details have delayed the project. According to Oxy Communications Director James Tranquada, the unique design of the array and the fact that city and city planners don’t have specific standards for array projects has made for “a lot of back and forth with details we didn’t expect. There are not a lot of ground-mounted arrays in urban areas. This is completely new.”

Indeed, once completed, Oxy’s solar array will be the largest ground-mounted solar arrays in the City of Los Angeles and one of the largest arrays in the country on a small college campus.

The nearly 5,000 panel project is divided into two parts –  one-third of those panels have been installed atop shade structured in a campus parking lot near what is known as Fuji Hill. (It’s anticipated that those panels will be hooked up and operational in the next month or so.)

The rest of the panels are placed nearby on a southwest-facing hillside. These panels are mounted two to three feet above the ground and will hug the topography of the slope in a curving design base on a hysteresis loop, a mathematical expression that describes the result of an alternating magnetic field applied to ferromagnetic material. (For those mathematically and/or scientifically-challenged, the project resembles either an elongated comma or a fancy paisley design.)

Either way, Oxy is taking aesthetics into account in the creation of large solar arrays; most arrays – especially the BrightSource project in the Mojave Desert – are creatively boring and very utilitarian in scope.

Once both systems are up and running, the system will  provide about 11% percent of the college’s annual electrical usage and cut its electric bill by more than $200,000 a year.

The creative design for the array – envisioned by the firm Lettuce Office in collaboration with college art faculty – uses SunPower panels, known for their efficiency in the trade.

Tranquada said that the ground-mounted panels were not first on the list for Oxy. They wanted to use as much rooftop installation as possible. But with so many historic buildings with red tile (can’t install panels on that), the idea of solar had to go down-down to the ground.

More electrical news at Oxy:

Related to the solar array are new electrical metering devices recently installed on campus classrooms, dorms and other school buildings. It’s the first time the campus is looking at energy (water and electricity) usage. “We can begin to track and accumulate data on where our energy is going,” says Tranquada. “This way we can establish a baseline and encourage reduction as seems fit.”

Watch how high you crank your stereo, students! And turn off that bathroom light!

Profile of Bungalow Heaven’s Bob Kneisel, Arroyo Magazine, June 2012

A Lasting Impression

Architecture and community have been longtime teachers for Bob Kneisel, Bungalow Heaven’s longtime champion

By Brenda Rees

Walking down the street in his quiet, leafy, bungalow-laden neighborhood, Bob Kneisel stops and stoops to pull out a weed from a curbside median that is not in front of his house. He tugs up the offending dandelion-like plant and hurls it into the gutter. “I’ll come back for these with a bag,” he says as he yanks up a few more. “These weeds will get in everyone’s yard, if you don’t watch out.”

One would think that after so many years of working to establish, and then protect, Bungalow Heaven in Northeast Pasadena from the lure of fast-paced urban development that started picking up steam in the 1980s, Kneisel, 65, would take a break from hands-on involvement, but he can’t. The bond of man and Craftsman is as indelible as the ruffled brick porch columns of Kneisel’s 1912 house.  “I’ll be in my house till I die,” he says matter-of-factly about his home on Mar Vista Avenue since 1986.  “I can’t imagine anywhere else I’d be.”

The recent recipient of The Blinn House Foundation’s annual Robert Winter award (named for the noted Pasadena architectural historian and author) was selected because of his close association with the success story of Bungalow Heaven, the first and largest Landmark District in Pasadena, established in 1989. “Bob Kneisel made the landmark district a reality, which marked a turning point in preservation in Pasadena,” the foundation said in a statement announcing the award.

Bungalow Heaven is a little oasis in the city and is roughly situated between Washington and Orange Grove north/south bordered by Lake and Hill Avenues on the east/west with inlets to Mentor and Holliston Avenues. With front doors topping 1,300 (it originally encompassed 982 homes, but the boundaries have been extended); Bungalow Heaven makes up one of the densest concentration of Craftsman homes in the country (with many Spanish Revival, Victorians, Colonial cottages and other styles represented as well). The moniker, Bungalow Heaven, has been around since the 1970s when resident John Merritt, a staffer at Pasadena Historic Preservation and fellow Robert Winter Awardee recipient this year, coined the phrase. Merritt went on to be Executive Director of the California Preservation Foundation.

Mainly constructed between 1905 and 1925, these Arts & Crafts-style single-lot homes reflect a more organic approach to architecture that their immediate predecessors, the ornate Victorians. River rock and redwood shingles adorn low-slung roofs that shade wide front porches. Bungalows were initially constructed for working-class buyers who valued good taste. While prices have since soared for the popular style, it still attracts aficionados of good design. Creative folk, educators, horticulturists, scientists and people in the entertainment industry — straight, gay and of every ethnicity – all find their way to these picture-perfect streets. And Kneisel probably knows their names. “You may come here for the homes, but you’ll stay for the neighborhood,” he says about the close-knit community.

Indeed, there is plenty buzz  in the streets about the summer Movie Nights as well as the Fourth of July parade in McDonald Park. Residents are recovering from this year’s Bungalow Heaven Home Tour which welcomed more than 1,000 visitors. In addition to these planned neighborhood events, the friendliness of the area is seen every day when young moms and toddlers meet in playgroups, children ride bikes together, couples walk their dogs or seniors enjoy a simple stroll.

Back on the sidewalk, Kneisel points out architectural details (“That’s called ‘peanut brittle,’” he says of the marriage of clinker bricks and mixed stone found in a chimney) and tells stories about unfortunate attempts at remodeling, drawn from local history. He stops at a gorgeous example of a California bungalow that would be right at home in a Greene & Greene portfolio. “Can you believe it was once stucco-ed over? Just look at it now,” he says with a touch of pride.

Farther down the street, Kneisel calls attention to a modest bungalow that was moved from the area around the Caltech campus in 1992, saving it from demolition. “Linus Pauling lived in it back in the ’20s,” he says of the two-time Nobel Prize-winner. “We have a saying, ‘Bungalow Heaven is where bungalows go when they are good.’”

There may be no one who knows these streets as intimately as Kneisel. For the past 20 years, Kneisel has been a block captain, receiving complaints and passing along communication to the residents. He is currently serving his second term as president of the Bungalow Heaven Neighborhood Association and is a regular docent for the Home Tour.

But 1985-1989 was when Kneisel really pounded the pavement of Bungalow Heaven. When a lovely two-story 1912 Craftsman bungalow on the corner of Wilson Avenue and Washington Boulevard was unceremoniously demolished to make way for, as Kneisel says, “one of the tackiest apartment houses anyone has ever seen,” he and the neighborhood decided to take action.

Petitions were circulated to rezone the area for only single family use with Kneisel leading the way as he and other concerned residents went door to door to garner support. Eventually, the city changed the zoning, a sweet victory.

With that new found high, residents decided to step further into preservation. They had saved bungalows from destruction from the outside, but could these houses be saved from themselves? Up and down the street, classic bungalows were being altered, fitted with aluminum windows or sadly stucco-ed over. Resident mulled the pros and cons of becoming a historic district. Once again, Kneisel and other residents put on their walking shoes to take the pulse of neighborhood, one by one.

Some homeowners immediately grasped that such a status would increase their property values – others, saw the designation as infringing on their rights. “There were those who said, ‘These homes are historical, they are nothing special,’” recalls Kneisel. “We had a little image problem back then.”

For a year and a half, “Conservation Plan,” was hammered out between city and homeowners. The plan is a list of what kinds of minor and major home alternations would be reviewed by city staff or commission. Kneisel was part of that initial review panel as a neighborhood representative.

“Bob was incredibly enthusiastic and he engaged a lot of people in the effort,” says Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, who at the time served as a senior planner for Pasadena. “There was a lot of footwork those early days and Bob never shied away from it.”

With a working Conservation Plan in hand, Kneseil and company once again knocked on doors to garner signatures to accept the regulations.

During the canvassing, it became evident that while homeowners were interested in their preserving their homes, they were also overtly concerned about their community. Traffic, rising crime, potholes. McDonald Park didn’t feel safe to many residents. “Forming a Neighborhood Association was a tremendous step,” says Kneseil who was instrumental in that creation. Not only did the organization create a bond between neighbors, it was a necessity since Pasadena required that areas seeking historic status must have an active neighborhood association.

Finally, enough property owners signed the petition for Landmark District designation by the City Council which, in 1989, made Bungalow Heaven the first neighborhood in Pasadena to be granted such a distinction. The status ensures that the neighborhood will retain its architectural integrity for generations to come.

“Bob and a handful of people really made this happen,” says Tina Miller, past president of the Bungalow Heaven Neighborhood Association, about those early canvassing days. “Bob knows the folks on the City Council, and he knows how the system works. He’s like a politician in the good sense of the word. He likes being out there, shaking hands, kissing babies and listening to what you have to say. It matters to him. He wants to get things done.”

Today, Kneisel’s activism has expanded beyond the boundaries of Bungalow Heaven, especially since that association joined in 2002 the Pasadena Neighborhood Coalition, which unites local neighborhood associations. “We offer our experience and can be a resource to those associations that are trying to do what we did back then,” he says. “We want others to benefit from our knowledge.” Kneisel served as president of that coalition for two years.

Kneisel also continues to defend individual historic buildings and neighborhoods that are being threatened. He recently got a call from other local neighborhood associations to join them to lobby on behalf of three structures around Hill Avenue and Washington Boulevard. One of them, a brick Colonial Revival building at 1313 N. Hill which houses the Shoetorium, did qualify for landmark status and is heading to City Council for a vote as of this writing.

Kneisel is a natural for the preservation spotlight, despite the fact that he never academically studied architecture or history – he worked for years as an environment economist for the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

“Bungalows were built for human scale, they aren’t mansions with high ceilings,” he says. “They are modest and easy to live in. Craftsman bungalows have lots of windows, great ventilation and integrate nature in the design so there’s a woodsy natural feeling to them.”

So how was this love match made? Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Kneisel remembers riding his bike in the 1950s to check out houses in the “new development.” When his history professor father took a job at Long Beach City College and moved the family west, Kneisel recalls preferring Knott’s Berry Farm to Disneyland because “it was more interesting – probably because it felt older.”

In the 1970s, when Kneisel was a grad student in Economics at UC Riverside, he became the caretaker of the eclectic Weber House in Riverside. The experience sparked his affinity for historic homes and gave him the organizational know-how to save such beloved structures from the wrecking ball.

Built between 1932 and 1938 by architect Peter J. Weber, the house’s hard-carved and hand-decorated elements combine Moorish, Craftsman and Art Deco styles. “I cut my teeth on home repair there on the Weber House,” says Kneisel, remembering the imaginative brick house on nine acres with its gas-powered refrigerator, a “challenging” electrical system and a solar water heater (installed in 1935 and still operational) with collector panels made of automobile windshields. The elaborate floor-to-ceiling bathroom mosaic, created with recycled broken tiles, is, as Kneisel says, “an amazing piece of artwork.”

Kneisel befriended Weber (“It’s not often you can meet the architect of a home you are living in”) and learned much from his early unofficial mentor in historical architecture. Weber had worked for noted designer Julia Morgan in San Francisco; later he was a chief designer at the architectural firm of G. Stanley Wilson where he planned much of Riverside’s elaborate Mission Inn. “[Weber] was a man who wasn’t afraid to do things his own way,” says Kneisel.

Throughout his two years as caretaker of the Weber House, Kneisel became involved in preserving his old dwelling; even after he moved from the area, he served on the board of the Old Riverside Foundation for Historic Preservation which ultimately saved the house from demolition. “I think I came of age about historic preservation as [the foundation] learned the ropes about saving the house,” he says. “That was my first taste of being an activist citizen.”

The Weber House still remains (it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and offers tours by appointment only), although it’s no longer surrounded by the original nine acres of orange groves. Two modern hotels now tower over the house in an odd juxtaposition of new dwarfing old.

Despite his fondness for the past, Kneisel has two feet in the present with his eyes on the future. Back on the pavement, he stops and takes in the scene before him: sparkling homes, wonderful gardens, singing birds and an incredible sense of peace that’s just seconds away from the bustle of Lake Avenue.

When Kneisel first moved into Bungalow Heaven, he saw a diamond in the rough, with homes in various needs of attention, but now, the neighborhood “feels more authentic. I love when the stucco comes off and homes change into something beautiful,” he says. “We are fortunate to live in this wonderful island, surrounded by people with common values who want to live here. That is what makes any neighborhood great.”