I've learned a lot about architecture since leaving it. As a residential real estate broker in Los Angeles, I advise and negotiate on behalf of buyers and sellers of homes—architecturally distinctive homes, when possible. It's like doing postgraduate work-study. Constant visits to ordinary and occasionally extraordinary houses provide daily insights into the way people use the spaces they occupy. My understanding of the process in which buildings are made is continually refined. And I see mounting evidence of the value of compelling design in a home.

Newcomers to Los Angeles have always felt comfortable ignoring the architectural traditions and history of the place. They've filled this perceived vacuum with expressions of their own memories and future visions. This century-long frontier mindset has yielded a colorful heterogeneity in the local housing stock.

Viewed as healthy in the natural world, diversity is not necessarily considered a positive attribute in the eyes of a real estate appraiser. The standard "principle of conformity" holds that "maximum value is realized when land uses are compatible and a reasonable degree of architectural harmony is present" (California Department of Real Estate Reference Book, California Department of Real Estate, 2000). The often unharmonious L.A. streetscape makes a perfect laboratory for evaluating this missive.

big-name talent

A couple of case studies, neither of which I handled personally:

  • A Hollywood mansion, lovingly restored, was built in 1923, considered the late Stone Age in the chronology of built Los Angeles. Except for the two-story, glass-enclosed living room, the interior spaces are cavernous and dark. The multi-level layout is labyrinthine. The flivver-era parking is unfit for SUVs, let alone Hummers. A nearby four-bedroom house, larger by 400 square feet and newer by almost 40 years, costs $1,555,000. This house sits on the market for a year, but when it is finally purchased, the price is $2,900,000. As one of a handful of Los Angeles homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Storer House (restored by Wright's architect grandson, Eric Lloyd Wright) has one of the fundamental components of all value in real estate: scarcity. The involvement of a celebrity seller added a quality not addressed in the appraisal texts: trophy value.

  • On a flat pad cut into a gentle slope, a 20-minute drive into one of the canyons whose fame is renewed annually during the fire season, sits an elegantly simple, nearly transparent house made almost entirely of glass within an exposed wide-flange steel frame. It contains two bedrooms and just 1,300 square feet. Right across the street on a comparable lot, a conventional home 40 percent larger in square footage sells for $900,000, in the range of a half dozen other recent sales. This house, straightforward and clear in its floor plan and architectural expression, sells in days for an outlandish $1,580,000.

    Designed by the late Pierre Koenig, FAIA, the home was a product of Arts and Architecture magazine's Case Study Program #21. The owner sought a record-high price in an effort to preserve the home as well as profit from it. This put it out of reach of remodeling developers seeking a return on investment. A buyer emerged, an architecture buff who understood and wanted the house on its own terms rather than hewing to standard market considerations. More unusual was the lender, who shared the buyer's faith in the intrinsic value of the design.

    model remodels

    Two more case studies, in which I represented the seller:

  • In a desirable private enclave near the Pacific Coast sits a 1953 architect-designed two-bedroom home with a tiny studio. A more recent architectural intervention has removed an entire 20-foot section of exterior wall. In its place is a massive sliding steel-and-glass door which, when opened, joins the living area of the house with the front lawn and pool area. The closest competing listings within the same enclave--both of similar size and bedroom count--sell for $1,175,000 and $1,205,000. This property costs $1,495,000, a premium over the neighboring homes of nearly $200 per square foot.

    Both the original architect, the late Clifford Yates, and the remodel architect, the young and promising Warren W. Wagner, AIA, are relatively obscure by most measures of fame. So the price can be deemed to strictly reflect the merits of the house. While it is quirky in terms of layout and siting, the house's passive energy features and dramatic slide-away wall ultimately powered a high-priced sale.

  • A modest postwar ranch house of anonymous character is dwarfed by a second story--clearly an addition. It bears absolutely no resemblance in form or material to the little old house it straddles. The formerly quiet subdivision in which the property sits is now bisected by a 10-lane-wide freeway overpass 500 feet from the front door. Across the street a home of the same size but of more "consistent" appearance sells for $455,000. Another home, two blocks farther from the undesirable freeway, went for $482,000, roughly the same per-square-foot price. Despite its proximity to the freeway, this house with four bedrooms packed into 1,544 square feet sells in multiple offers for $520,000.

    Widely published as "The Petal House," for the folded, tulip-shaped parapets enclosing a rooftop spa, this addition was one of the early works of Eric Owen Moss, FAIA, who has since become well known in architectural circles. But many prospective buyers were unfamiliar with Moss or his work. They were simply intrigued by advertising images and, for Los Angeles, an affordable price. Those who visited understood the efficient apportionment of living spaces and daylight and the novel treatment of conventional and unconventional materials. These included heavy rope handrails laced taut and exposed ceiling joists custom-sawn to suggest a shaped ceiling in the resulting negative space.

    design value

    Improved real estate--property with buildings--shares two of the basic characteristics of architecture codified by Vitruvius. All buildings have structure (firmitas), and all buildings enclose space (commoditas). The first two factors being relatively equal, the true determinant of value is the third, more elusive Vitruvian quality: delight (venustas). Like a classical deity, delight may take many forms. Its effects may go unattributed, but they are always essential.

    All property is subject to the market forces of supply and demand, the benefits or drawbacks of location, the practical concerns of structure and function. These form the mundane context in which, from time to time, real estate markets will overheat. It's up to architects to provide delight.

    Erik Lerner, AIA, is a registered architect and a licensed real estate broker in California. His business, RealEstateArchitect, is a subgroup of Mossler, Deasy & Doe Realtors in Beverly Hills.