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Architect Gerhard Becker Faces Manslaughter Charges After a Firefighter Died Trying to Save His Home 

Thursday, Mar 21 2013
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Kolb also had children from a previous relationship, and could not move to L.A. because she needed to be near their father. Though she did not see a future for the relationship, she came to stay with Becker as he built his house in the Hollywood Hills.

"He is a perfectionist in everything he is doing," she says. "He has lots of energy, and a brilliant mind."

He spent $1 million to buy a narrow strip of steep hillside on Viewsite Drive. A home had once sat on it, but it had been torn down after sustaining damage in the Northridge earthquake. Becker sized up the property and decided he could sculpt a 12,500-square-foot house on the side of the cliff, at a further cost of $4 million.

click to flip through (7) ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS WHETZEL
  • ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS WHETZEL
 

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"I get this idea, and it just flows," he says. Leaning over the top floor balcony, he points out where the contours of the house match the hillside. "The exciting part is to see it happen — to see the project growing day by day."

Kolb is an artist and an interior designer. Together they designed the open floor plan.

"What he likes is space," Kolb says. "It's a very healthy surrounding for your mind — to be free and open."

See also: Slideshow of Gerhard Becker's House

Becker would meet his match in Brad Bescos, a Hollywood Hills building inspector. As much as Becker cared about freedom and openness, Bescos cared about handrails and code constraints. In 2010, Bescos was driving down Sunset Plaza Drive when he saw a cement truck turn up Viewsite Drive.

Bescos makes it his business to know when construction is going on in his domain, and no one had told him they would be pouring concrete that day. According to the rules, no one can pour pilings without a deputy engineer on site. When Bescos arrived, Becker didn't have one. Bescos shut the worksite down and sent the concrete trucks away.

It was the first of several clashes.

"He was resistant to my correction notices," Bescos would later testify. "He felt he didn't need our department there because when he had built before, he was in charge, and he made all the decisions."

Becker often complained to Bescos' boss to try to have his decisions overturned, without success. In other instances, Bescos would seek corrections and Becker would burrow into the building code, eventually inventing unique solutions to the inspector's concerns.

Sometimes Becker would comply initially — only to change things back after the inspection. He removed the mandatory outdoor sprinklers because he did not like the look. He took out a railing that he thought was unnecessary, and removed the pool alarm. He also built a full kitchen in the maid's quarters, when he was only allowed to build a sink.

In July 2010, Becker ordered a custom-made natural-gas fire pit from a company in Colorado, at a cost of $3,450. In an e-mail exchange with the sales representative, Becker said he planned to install the unit inside. The sales rep wrote back, emphasizing that the units were for outdoor use only.

"I am aware," Becker wrote. "I just don't see the difference. I[t] is a pit with a pipe."

As an outdoor unit, however, the fire pit was designed to have an 8-foot clearance above it. Becker's plan was to build the fireplace into a recessed alcove in the wall, with only about 18 inches of clearance. The outdoor unit was also intended to have ventilation from the open air, without which it would be prone to overheating. The owner of the company that manufactures the fire pits would later testify that he was "shocked, to say the least," to see one installed indoors.

In the e-mail to the sales rep, Becker wrote that he would cover the pit with fire-resistant materials. In the worst-case scenario, he noted, the building inspector might ask for a certification number. "If the pits don't have that number, than [sic] I have to put them in after the inspection," he wrote.

Prosecution experts would later document a long list of problems with the fireplace. Becker built the frame out of wood and drywall, both of which are flammable, instead of metal or brick. He covered the wood with tile and cement board, but that was not enough of a buffer to prevent the frame from catching fire. They also found he did not provide the appropriate clearances or venting.

"This particular system is so far off the mark," Dale Feb, a prosecution expert, testified at the preliminary hearing. "There is no way that anyone that had any type of familiarity with this product would do this."

The house caught fire on Feb. 16, 2011. Becker had rented out the house for $100,000 to Germany's Next Top Model, a spinoff of the Tyra Banks show hosted by Heidi Klum. The models were due to move in the following week.

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