Embracing Land's Natural Beauty

Building on a American Indian burial ground isn’t a factor many design/builders are confronted with. However, this was exactly the case when Solana Beach, Calif.-based Wardell Builders decided to build this home in La Jolla, Calif. Building on this plot of land created additional challenges, however. Its location on a bluff with spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, as well as proximity next to a canyon and bird sanctuary, add to the challenges the burial ground presented.

From the beginning, four challenges required close attention: 1) the house was being built on American Indian burial grounds; 2) taking advantage of the views of the ocean and neighboring canyon; 3) keeping the house from dominating the site; and 4) maintaining sound control for minimal influence on the bird nesting area on the neighboring site.

Built where excavation had previously been done was an intentional decision intended to minimize the chance of hitting burial areas. “The largest challenge was the minimal amount of disturbance that was allowed on the soil,” says Terry Wardell, president, Wardell Builders. “An archeologist and Indian tribal representative had to be present any time we disturbed the soil.”

To avoid soil disturbance, Wardell Builders and San Diego-based Safdie Rabines Architects agreed on a caisson-and-grade beam foundation. “We had to put the fewest points in the soil,” Wardell says. “Some caissons are 8 in. deep and others are 4 ft. deep. This was a major design aspect from the beginning.”

Instead of removing the top layer of soil on the site to begin construction, caissons offered the opportunity to disturb as little amount of soil as possible. “The only foundation element that penetrates below 6 in. were the caissons; these occurred about every 8 ft.,” Wardell says. “The grade beams span across the caissons, much like beams over posts. The grade beams only scratch into the soil, no more than 6 in. The grade beams create a grid pattern with a caisson under each beam lap. The slab spans across this grid of grade beams. It is a structural slab, about 8 in. thick and can span or float over the distance between grade beams.”

Paying attention to the bird sanctuary next door to the site, a sound engineer was called to verify the builder wasn’t disturbing the birds with too much noise. “The site was immediately next to nesting birds, requiring sound control,” Wardell says. “No construction equipment, activity or people crossed that area of the biologically sensitive zone. The house sits 2 ft. from the biological zone.”

Seamless with surroundings
Many design/builders choose different ways to make sure their projects fit in with their surroundings without obstructing the area. For Safdie and Wardell, the goal was to maintain the original experience one encountered on the land. They wanted to continue the feeling of walking up the bluff and looking down to the canyon. “Originally when you walked up to the site, you looked down into the mound,” Safdie says. “We wanted to maintain that experience of the site.”

This was accomplished by placing the house at the top of the bluff, and designing it in the shape of a half moon, with a leg. “(The house) follows the shape of the land, the crest of the hill,” Safdie adds. “It allows the main rooms (master bedroom, bathroom, office, living room, dining room, kitchen and family room) to have views of the canyon.”

From the outside there is a curved wall that draws a visitor up to the house. Part of the wall is wood and the other part is stucco. “The wood wall creates the entrance of the house and the stucco wall encloses a southern garden and provides privacy from the street,” Safdie says.

The wood material is found outside as well as inside the house. This blurs the line between exterior and interior. “Planes are not changed just because they traverse inside or outside,” Wardell adds. “It appears that the wood runs through the house from exterior to interior. That’s very typical with contemporary houses.”

Another goal was to create a memorable experience between the garage and the house. There is a stepping stone gallery that leads to the entrance and offers views of the canyon, garden and ocean. “We created a gallery to the main part of the house. On one side there are shelves and on the other side the owners can display their artwork,” Safdie adds.

The roofline was not neglected in the scheme of the design. It offers a dramatic appeal to enhance the rest of the house. Beginning as a rectangle, it then curves with the landscape to the ocean. “The roof over the rooms is curved. It is also reverse-vaulted as it goes up over the canyon,” Safdie says. “The glass on the canyon side is taller allowing for the views of the ocean.

“The difference between the low roof and the high roof allows for clerestories to occur,” Safdie says. “The idea was to create a low ceiling that kept the scale intimate.” Clerestories run the whole length of the curved part of the house and are intended to throw lighting across the ceiling as well as create intimacy.

The custom home reflects a contemporary style; however, Safdie is hesitant to place a label on the project’s style. “Style is something you start with and assign to it and we didn’t do that,” Safdie says. “We started with forms, shapes and spaces and how these respond to people’s needs — then you see where it leads you.”

Teamwork all around
Custom building requires teamwork. Sometimes, home-owners put all their trust in the design/build team to make decisions for them and implement those decisions. However, the homeowners for this project stayed involved with both designer and builder, and asked the team for certain details in their home. “The homeowner wanted the house to be warm and inviting,” Safdie says. “They wanted the house to take advantage of the great views of the canyon and the ocean. They liked the open, informal living spaces and outdoor living spaces.”

When a homeowner maintains involvement in a project, there can be overzealous ideas at play, but fortunately this was not the case with this project. “Their ideas didn’t create challenges for us but rather opportunities,” Safdie adds.

Wardell adds that the homeowners were involved and drove a lot of the design, but it was up to Wardell Builders to implement those ideas. “There were many levels of communication, financial control, scheduling, homeowner responsibilities, an expected level of competency of the builder and the execution of the project itself,” Wardell says. “There is little room for error when building a contemporary project. It’s a bit finer execution than of an ornamental house that can hide things.”

Architect and builder also worked closely together. “There was open communication between all members of the team and a really visionary and understanding client,” Wardell says. “The architect was the orchestra leader before building began, and that responsibility shifted to the builder once we broke ground.”

Great teamwork and involved homeowners led to a successful project after one and half years of design and 13 months of construction. Ultimately, the site offered many challenges and opportunities to both designer and builder. “The site is irreplaceable with its sweeping views of the ocean, green space, quiet neighborhood and quick access to highways.” Wardell adds. “What more can you ask for in a lot?”