Looking only at the square footage and lot-size figures for this Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., residence, you might think it was to be built in a tract development or an urban-infill lot. After all, an 1,800-sq.-ft. home on a 40-ft.-by-100-ft. lot hardly seems likely to carry a seven-figure price tag. But this community’s spectacular setting and ordinances that protect the local environment have made such not-so-big homes the norm.
Architect and builder Al Saroyan, AIA, president of Saroyan Masterbuilder, Sand City, Calif., has a long history of designing and building homes in this seaside resort community, with its stunning views and strict requirements. After years of perching homes on rocky hillsides and maneuvering his designs to fit between trees — and within narrow lot lines — he has learned the impact a Craftsman-like attention to detail can have on even the smallest structures.
In planning this residence, which he originally designed as a second home for his own family, Saroyan’s biggest challenges included maximizing access to the sloping site’s ocean vistas, while maintaining privacy from closely adjoining neighbors. The result is a two-bedroom jewel, complete with media room and wine cellar, tucked into the hillside. But site constraints and local ordinances made planning even such a small residence a challenge.
“It’s quite a puzzle to design in Carmel-by-the-Sea,” Saroyan says, “because you have topography, trees, a volumetric ordinance and maximum square footage.”
The topography — a steep, rocky slope — and trees are easy enough to understand. But Saroyan says that bringing together local regulations on square footage and “volume” can require some serious math skills. Maximum square footage, which includes garage space, is determined by a schedule based on overall lot size. The home’s allowed volume, essentially its height, is determined from the site’s natural grade level. Everything above that line counts toward the volume figure, while basement space is free — so long as the top of that lower level rises no more than 1 ft. above the grade line.
“It forces you to really dig the basement out, and stick it completely underground,” Saroyan says.
Mixing Designs and Materials
Once he’d run the calculations to determine this home’s footprint, Saroyan turned to the actual design, which draws on two area traditions.
“I would say it’s a blending of hunting lodge and Craftsman,” he says. “I think our goal was to create something that had the volume and feel of a lodge, but that was much more elegant and functional than a lodge.”
The exterior materials he chose — wood siding and timbers, along with natural stone — also help the house blend into its wooded, rocky site. Copper also plays an understated yet important role in the designer’s palette, beginning with the counterpoint it adds to the exterior’s simple cedar clapboards. Saroyan had his craftsmen inset thin bands of copper sheathing between the hand-hewn boards. As it ages, the copper’s patina will create a shadow effect, even in direct sunlight. This helps emphasize the home’s horizontal lines.
Observant visitors will notice that this level of craftsmanship continues once they cross the threshold, where that simple mix of wood and stone, with just a touch of copper, continues. Saroyan took advantage of whatever interior volume he was able to achieve under the town’s ordinances to create lofty cathedral ceilings, with exposed trusses that are as decorative as they are functional. The Douglas fir beams are hand-scraped, then sanded smooth. Their wavy, glassy-smooth surfaces invite touch as they highlight the natural wood grain patterns. All the home’s solid knotty-alder doors were given the same treatment.
“That’s a talent we’ve developed over the years, designing houses by the square inch, instead of the square foot.”
Al Saroyan, AIA, president of Saroyan Masterbuilder
Look past the joists and you’ll see the ceiling also benefits from Saroyan’s detail-oriented approach. Though most would be happy with the exposed wood boards, Saroyan decided on a more finished appearance.
“We took your standard tongue-and-groove decking ceiling and designed a custom piece of trim to cover all the seams,” he says. “It creates something like the look of board and batten.”
The ceilings follow the floor plan, uninterrupted, into the open kitchen, which is set at a 45-degree angle to the living area. The parquet flooring running throughout the house also helps tie these spaces together, using a puzzle-like pattern assembled out of individual pieces of ¾-in.-thick hardwood. The manufacturer used the floor plan to develop the pattern, then shipped the pieces to the site in assembled 2-ft. squares held together by an adhesive membrane that could be peeled off once the squares were laid in place.
“Each square probably has 15 to 20 small pieces,” Saroyan says, noting that the repeat is designed to the home’s exact dimensions. “The pattern is engineered so it stops perfectly [at the walls].”
To fulfill his hunting-lodge vision, Saroyan needed large stones for his massive stone fireplace. But he didn’t want their protruding presence to eat up too much of his precious floor space. The solution: Each stone was hand-split to create the illusion of a full-sized piece.
Engineering the lower level, which includes a media room and wine cellar accessed via internal elevator and external staircase, required similar creativity. Saroyan is committed to retaining original trees on his building lots, even when local officials permit their removal. In this case, he had approval to move two trees growing close to where footings would be poured — in fact, their roots passed under the footings’ proposed location. Using a technique developed over the years, Saroyan created a structural “bridge” over the roots that will allow roots room for future growth. Even the home’s two decks were designed with the trees’ trunks and limbs in mind.
“We kept them, and they’ve survived and done very well,” Saroyan says. “We have a few trade secrets for how we keep those trees from dying on us.”
The architect similarly is intent on maintaining the inner environment of the homes he builds, with special attention paid to air-quality issues. So, wood flooring and ceiling materials are solid, not engineered, eliminating any glue-related volatile organic chemicals. Walls are hand-plastered, not sheet rocked, and any finishes are specified to be VOC-free.
“Indoor air quality is important to me personally,” Saroyan says. “And I try to take that to the extreme in the houses I build.”
Saroyan sees such attention to detail as basic to the job title he has given himself — master builder. To him, this title connotes a broader vision than that which an architect or contractor, alone, can bring to a project. His company carries that vision all the way through, to include full landscaping services and even selecting the furnishings that fill a home once the last hammer has gone silent. Though his company will work with a client’s own designers, he says most of his clients — including the buyers of this residence — prefer such a full-service approach.
“Most of our clients will turn us loose and let us make the decisions all the way along,” he says, noting the special challenges jewel-box-sized Carmel-by-the-Sea homes can pose.
“That’s a talent we’ve developed over the years,” he says, “designing houses by the square inch, instead of the square foot.”