A body of water — and green design — are the focus of this swimmer’s home
By Jered Friedland
Photography by David Glomb
When Bob Greenbaum swims in his pool, he can glance to his left and see into his living room. When he relaxes in his living room, he can look to his right and see into his pool. This is no dry La Mirada estate.
When Greenbaum, a realtor and film producer, set out to build his dream home, he had two major considerations. An environmentally conscious father of three, he insisted on a comfortable, family-friendly, energy-efficient residence that incorporates the surrounding ecosystem. At the same time, as a single man and dedicated athlete who swims 132 laps (almost two miles) every day, he visualized a dramatic modern estate in which the pool was central to the house.
Donald Wexler had designed the home of Greenbaum’s parents in Palm Springs, and was the homeowner’s ideal man for the job. Having since shifted his business practice to strictly consulting, Wexler directed him to architect Ana Escalante. With the help of Escalante and interior designer Mark Nichols, the finished product is a breathtaking showplace that embraces the desert environment and epitomizes the marriage of modern architecture with the latest in energy-efficient technology. Better yet, per Greenbaum’s specifications, the pool sits in the very heart of the home.
Viewed from the front, dramatically illuminated desert landscaping flanks sleek concrete steps as they descend to a steel-and-glass entry door that glows a deep azure blue, then shimmering emerald before transitioning to ruby tones. Open the front door and the source of the light show is revealed: a series of translucent wall inserts that run the length of the room. These geometric panes of glass are set like jewels into a wall that runs the entire length of the house and is shared by the living room and kitchen. Guests’ first impression is that they are looking at a sculptural art installation. Upon closer inspection, they realize that they are looking through three layers of half-inch, aquarium-grade, laminated glass offering cool blue views right into the pool.
“Bob wanted a 75-foot pool,” Escalante says. “Even though the site was large, there were height restrictions. I said to Bob, ‘I don’t think we’re designing a house. We are designing a pool with a house around it.’” Soon the pool gave birth to a concrete block wall, which became the main anchoring element for the house. The geometric shapes of the living spaces were layered on top of it. The cement wall had to be engineered in a specific way to withstand the lateral force of the water in the pool. “It has more rebar than a freeway,” Escalante says. “When we ordered the steel for the structure, everything had to fit perfectly within one-sixteenth of an inch. We needed to take into consideration thermal expansion and contraction. By the time the material was delivered, not one concrete block had to be cut. Everything fit like a glove.”
Initially, the shared wall with the pool was intended to have insular properties to maintain a comfortable temperature in the home throughout the seasons. As it turns out, the design is also a fun and innovative way to create a “human aquarium,” and incorporate the elements of the pool and its occupants into the house itself. “There’s just a serenity with water,” says Greenbaum about the water that surrounds him, both as a swimmer and in his home.
Mirror-image master suites look out over the valley floor and artfully span the airy space above the rectangular pool. Floor-to-ceiling glass doors slide open and stack in the corners of most rooms to give access to the pool and glass-free views of the natural surroundings.
Paintings with water themes adorn the walls of the swimmer’s home. Greenbaum’s collection of paintings and sculpture is delightfully eclectic. Just inside of the powder room resides a favorite pine woodcarving. It was a gift from his parents and is particularly poignant for Greenbaum, who explains that the piece represents a man searching for direction in his life and coming to terms with who he is. Though his collection is impressive, Greenbaum maintains, “I am not an art collector. I buy things because they appeal to me, not because someone else likes them.”
Equally taste-driven designer Mark Nichols created a rich palette of natural colors throughout the home, inspired by the native desert flora on all sides. “I like to showcase the interplay between man’s technological and artistic advances and nature’s unerring tenacity,” he says. “The Greenbaum house is a fine example of this.” Through his language of natural fabrics and custom finishes, Nichols weaves a narrative that speaks to both the rich ancestral history of the desert and the contemporary aesthetic conveyed through the boldly modern architecture. In the spirit of preservation, the project additionally demanded an abundant use of recycled and prefabricated products. Nichols addressed this through his use of natural materials such as silk-and-aloe area rugs, undyed natural hemp, formaldehyde-free bamboo, recycled-glass mosaic tiles, and terrazzo manufactured from natural and recycled materials.
Despite Greenbaum’s original intention to make his home entirely self-sufficient, it ultimately made more sense to be tied into the power grid. To do otherwise, Greenbaum explains, would have been far too costly and would have created a safety issue. Nevertheless, photovoltaic panels and solar heating provide 80 to 90 percent of the electricity consumed. The main floor of the home and the pool area were carved into the ground, and the resulting berm of earth against the exterior walls serves to protect the home from extreme temperatures. “When I moved in,” Greenbaum relates, “the electric bill for May through December was $1,000.” Comparatively, his neighbor with similar square footage said he had received an electric bill for one month that was more than three times that amount.
Set in a cove between boulders and high above the glittering lights of Rancho Mirage, the architectural masterpiece cascades self-generated light over the surrounding desertscape and proudly reigns as one of the largest sustainable residences of record in the Coachella Valley. The Greenbaum project is proof that man can live decadently with very little sacrifice while conserving natural resources and respecting the surrounding environment. “When I visit the house now, I compare it to the 3-D models we made of the home. They match up more beautifully than I could have hoped for,” Escalante says. “I want my ashes to be scattered over that house.”