Building a Custom Home on a Tract Site

The beginning of a journey down a successful road for Gordon Gibson, president of Gordon Gibson Construction in Santa Monica, Calif., started as a laborer, then a carpenter, framer and now a custom builder of high-end homes in Southern California. He travels extensively, which grounds his sense of architectural appreciation.

Gibson’s travels have taken him to more than 75 different countries. Design inspiration is not his intention when traveling but he adds it’s a great benefit. “Traveling gives me firsthand knowledge of true architecture for the custom home industry. When I travel to Greece and see the Parthenon or Rome, or Turkey, I see real architectural designs — how it came to be influenced by previous generations and how it moves forward to current architecture,” he says.

Custom home building was not always Gibson’s niche. However, he has been focused on this part of the industry for 30 years. “[Transferring to custom] is an outgrowth — a transformation of a goal to do better and more significant work,” Gibson adds.

As he begins each project, he finds it’s a challenge to deal with new architecture and new owners because it’s an emotional process for homeowners to build a large custom home. “It’s a challenge to work with the emotions of clients. Because they become emotionally involved, you become emotionally involved in them and trying to create their own personal masterpiece,” he says.

Demands of the site

The home pictured on these pages is located in Bel Air Estates, Calif., and features a Mediterranean style. Gibson adds that this style results from a metamorphosis of different types of architecture and might include some Roman, Spanish or Greek influences.

Gibson collaborated with J. Scott Carter, owner and architect of Wilie Carter Architects in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and interior designer Malgosia Midgal, owner of Malgosia Midgal Design Associates in Beverly Hills, Calif. All three worked closely together to create solutions for the challenges they faced when working on the project.

The lot was one challenge that presented itself from the beginning. “[The house] is located on a tracked lot amongst a group of houses that are already developed. A spec builder had secured several parcels of land and had built a house next to this site with intentions of repeating the same house on this lot. Our owners weren’t happy with the layout of that plan,” Carter says.

Carter worked closely with the homeowner to make changes to the original floor plan so it met their needs and desires. “They wanted a change of scale. A lot of the homes in this particular area are the classic McMansions. We worked hard to break that scale down and give a bit more character to the house. We played a lot with low plate lines. The entire second floor has 7-ft.-high plate lines which is a bit unusual but allowed us to drop the roof line relatively low,” Carter says.

A height limit restricted the roof and elevations on the house. “We had to ensure the people behind the house and up above could still see their views. This required a specific envelope that we had to fit the house into,” Carter says.

Because the lot was for production housing, it was cut flat and fell off down a hill. “We ended up developing a house that went over the side of the hill and stepped down below — it maximized the use of the property,” Carter says.

The construction and design of the project started at the bottom of the hill and worked back toward the top. “We had to start at the bottom of the hill, build retaining walls and work back toward the upper elevation,” Gibson says. “We put in a subterranean entertainment room and continued up the slope. We put in a sunken pool into the side of the entertainment room.”

A Los Angeles freeway is located below the property which necessitated reducing noise pollution. “We built out the terrace to deflect the noise out and away [from the house]. We also developed landscape walls that were in the direct line of sight,” Carter says. “I’m a sound stage director for Hollywood and I’m aware of the way sound works. I think we nailed it considering that the house is exposed to the continuous sound. You’re oblivious to it in the house.”

Aesthetically pleasing

Creating the appeal of the front of the house was handled differently than on most projects. Instead of focusing on how the house appears as someone walks up to it, Carter focused on how the house appears as it’s approached from an angle. “There is no one across the street — it’s a single-loaded street on a hillside. I felt it was inappropriate to spend much time looking at the house straight on. You needed to get a feel for the house as you approach — be able to identify where the front entrance was,” he says.

The house includes an interior courtyard where one’s eyes are immediately drawn to the metal gate. “As you come up to it, it has a trellis all the way across the front with vines hanging on it and gives an Old-World, Tuscan look,” Gibson says. “You walk into a massive wrought-iron door, into a courtyard with a fountain and exterior stairs to an adjoining room.”

Originally, coffered ceilings were to be included, which were nixed at the last minute. “The homeowners were trying to save a little bit of money so the coffered ceilings weren’t installed for budget reasons,” Carter adds. Instead, vaulted ceilings were created throughout the house.

Also located inside the front entrance is a bridge. The second floor is large enough and exceeded the code maximum occupancy limit, so it required an additional exit. The bridge was the solution. “The bridge form floats through the space. I had fun with it because it’s essentially a 2x6 deck. You’re looking at the underside of the 2x6s stuck between beams which is a relatively crude form. We played with it and it’s a very successful part of the house,” Carter says.

The master bath is customized specifically to the owners and features his and hers areas. “The layout of the master suite was set up based on the location of the bed. The bed is set up to give the best view of the city at night. But if the husband and wife switch sides, they are going to be confused because one specific doorway goes to the woman’s side of the master suite and the other doorway goes to the husband’s side,” Carter says. The finishes and style were a collaboration of the interior designer and homeowner, he adds.

“It has a medieval feel of a castle but being so transparent and soft in colors mixed with modern elements, it gives you the feeling of escape and relaxation. This area is separate from hers, connected by an arched shower enclosure from both sides,” Midgal says. “Honey onyx in different shapes and textures were used in the shower and vanities.”

The appeal of the back of the house was intended to replicate a setting in the Mediterranean. “The pool space is a series of step-down areas that come off the main loggia to an outside patio. A set of stone stairs leads to an all-stone area around the swimming pool. There is a series of elevation changes like you’d see at the top of the hill looking down,” Gibson says. “All stone was used on the exterior rear of the house. It duplicates something you’d see in Tuscany so it makes it feel Old World. It incorporates all wooden overhangs, Spanish tiles, stone, and ties in all the wood windows.”

The loggia includes a custom-designed limestone fireplace located outside the dining room. “It features the limestone fireplace into which the letter N was carved symbolizing the initial of the client’s name. Outside the kitchen, we placed the bar with its concrete stained countertops and a huge pizza oven. A hidden subterranean guest house is located beneath the pool,” Midgal says.

Success without regrets

After 16 months, all parties involved attribute their success to teamwork. “[I directly attribute the success] to the open-minded and venturesome clients, their continuous and cooperative involvement and the teamwork with professionals who care about the detail and take pride in their work,” Midgal says.

Gibson adds that the accommodation of great people to work with is the reason for its success. “The architects, interior designers and owners — everyone was helpful and cooperative,” he says.

If he had to do it over again, Gibson said he wouldn’t change a thing.