Every evening at around 7:30pm in San Diego’s Mission Beach neighborhood, throngs of people flock to the boardwalk, and hundreds of pairs of eyes stare westward to watch the sun sink into the Pacific Ocean. It’s a remarkable sight to behold, especially since the Mission Beach population is such an eclectic mix of ethnicities, ages, and tax brackets. Somehow, the geography and low-key atmosphere of this particular area of San Diego Coastline, with the Mission Bay channel entrance on one side and the roaring Pacific on the other, brings everybody together in harmony. Like the people who live and play on this two-mile stretch known as The Strand, the architecture is varied—dilapidated 1930s beach cottages, 1970s stucco apartments, and new single-family homes crowd both ocean and bay sides of The Strand.
For many years Mitchell and Miyo Reff would come to Mission Beach to join the sunset-watchers. Now, with the completion of their 5,000-square-foot, three-story home by San Diego-based firm ARCHITECTS hanna gabriel wells (HGW), the couple is part of the scene full-time, and can watch the sun go down from inside their second floor glass-walled living area, third-floor master bedroom suite, or either of two balconies. The Reffs, who raised their two sons in the University City community of San Diego, about a half-hour drive north of Mission Beach, bought a ramshackle, 1,600-square-foot beach cottage about six years ago with the idea that when their nest was empty they’d make the house livable and eventually retire there. But, in the end, the cottage was too far gone. Deciding to build from the ground up, the couple found HGW after admiring a house the firm had designed in the area.
The program for the new house wasn’t complicated, but it was specific. “The Reffs wanted extended family and friends to come and stay, so they specified two separate residences in one unit,” says Jim Gabriel, AIA, project architect for the house. They also wanted maximum sun exposure, ample parking, protection from the elements, and required that the entire house be accessible to their elderly parents. Taking inspiration from the nearby bluffs, HGW devised what they call “choreographed subtraction,” a design process to achieve indoor/outdoor living with maximum views, resilient materials, and privacy from the densely populated community. “We thought about how the bluffs are solid yet naturally eroded away to leave carved-out spaces,” says Gabriel. “We thought the house could reflect that idea.”
The corner lot house is anchored on the ground floor guest apartment and looks inward to a light-filled courtyard with a reflecting pool. In the interest of moderating the excess of sand, salt, and water that enter the house with beach living, HGW made the house accessible by an industrial-steel grating exterior stair (in addition to an interior stair and elevator). “By the time you get to the top of the outside stair the sand is off your shoes,” says Gabriel. Cast-in-place concrete walls on the ground floor, exterior copper cladding on the top two floors, and a minimal palette inside and out of cement plaster, concrete, stone, and bamboo flooring (on the top floor) round out the list of durable materials that maintain their integrity while, at the same time, keeping the weathering process evident.
The house still stands out on its block—shiny and new among the salt-toughened older buildings. But as the copper cladding patinas it will fit more and more into its surroundings, much like the Reffs, who don't for a minute regret their decision to become beach dwellers. "We're not flashy people," says Miyo. "We're solid, we like light and texture, and this house has exceeded our expectations. I'm enjoying riding my bicycle, meeting the neighbors, hosting our family and friends. It's a healthy lifestyle, and we've been able to fit right in."