Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California

Concrete can wear many faces. In the wrong hands it goes cold and clinical, the stuff of a thousand Brutalist eyesores. But when made with skill, it becomes something else entirely, imbued with a tactile allure that's well suited for residential projects. This allure is largely responsible for the quiet, contemplative power of Phoenix House. In a seaside town some 25 miles north of San Diego, architect Sebastian Mariscal formed a structure of richly textured concrete that employs adroit massing, a carefully considered floor plan, and a diverse collection of outdoor spaces in a design that eschews grandiosity for intimacy.

It’s fitting that the owners, a married couple with three sons, felt drawn to this indestructible material. In October 2007, their traditional-style house fell victim to one of several wildfires that ripped through the San Diego area that fall. During the gut-wrenching months that followed, they considered buying a turnkey condo downtown or relocating to a different city entirely. Instead, they found themselves drawn to Cardiff-by-the-Sea, a century-old community with narrow winding streets featuring a dense and eclectic mix of homes clinging to bluffs along the Pacific Ocean. “We wanted a house that was a complete departure aesthetically from where we’d lived before, and we had the freedom to build one here,” said the husband.

Familiar with Mariscal’s residential work in San Diego, where the architect once lived, the owners approached him. They asked for a warm, minimalist home to complement their collection of contemporary art, with a floor plan to accommodate their youngest son (now in high school) and the older two as guests, and space to add an elevator later if needed. Then, after finalizing the program, they gave him more or less free rein to design it. “These are the clients you dream of having,” the architect says.

Mariscal has made a name for himself by ginning up clever solutions for tricky building sites, such as multifamily housing projects in southern California; here he exploits the strengths of a narrow, deep hilltop lot. For Phoenix House, he inverted the typical floor plan, tucking the bedrooms beneath the common areas so that the latter snagged the ocean views. And instead of designing it as a monolithic mass, he broke it down into distinct volumes joined by stairwells and bridges. Within and between these volumes, he carved out openings to let in light and create voids that form decks, patios, and seating areas—nearly every room has direct access to one. Though unconventional, the layout coheres as a series of gallery-like spaces that are themselves works of art, worthy of exploration.

Outside, finding the entry feels a bit like discerning the head of a hiking trail. “I like to hide houses from the street,” Mariscal admits. “I design from the inside out, so I never think about curb appeal.” Staggered stepping stones wind through surrounding vegetation, then pass beneath a concrete overhang on their way to the entry. Where the tree canopy opens up to reveal the sky, a sliding mahogany door materializes at the path’s end. Behind that door sits the double-height vestibule, its main light source a wall of glass veiled by bamboo. This entry space is shadowy and sanctuary-like—there’s an urge to lower one’s voice—but steers clear of stuffy formality. From there, the glow of daylight from the stairwell invites a climb to the second-floor common spaces.

In a nod to traditional design, ceiling heights are lower in transitional spaces and higher in the areas they lead to. “Each part of a home should feel like a distinct experience,” Mariscal says. “Too many houses today are open-plan boxes with undifferentiated spaces.” By keeping the interior palette—limited to concrete and a handful of materials—stripped back to essentials, he highlighted the impeccable craftsmanship and a pervasive calmness and order.

The reinforced-concrete structure was both an aesthetic choice and a functional one (see sidebar). By day it prevents heat gain—so much so that the house has no air conditioning; by night it releases warmth as the temperature dips. The hot-water radiant heating system embedded in the floors is powered by a geothermal pump. Solar panels provide 30 to 40 percent of the home’s energy needs.

For all its heft and groundedness, the house offers a number of dynamic effects. Its facade acts as a giant screen for information from outside; depending on the weather, hour, and season, sunlight might cast rainbows on the rough walls, bathe them in an orange glow, or dapple them with shadows. The owners are fond of snapping smart-phone pictures of these fleeting moments and sending them to Mariscal.

These moments—memories captured—underscore Phoenix House’s powerful way of engaging its residents. Mariscal’s formal and material innovations here are laudable, and the human scale and warmth of the spaces within make these achievements all the more potent. Or, as the wife puts it, “It’s nothing like anywhere we’ve lived before, but we feel so comfortable here.”


The distinctive look of Phoenix House’s walls is the result of an exacting design and construction process. Each wall was painstakingly drawn in elevation with 12-, 10-, 8-, and 6-inch widths of rough-sawn Douglas fir boards used to build the cast-in-place formwork. The board widths were staggered to suit the scale of each space. After the first pour, concrete seeped out between the boards, so the team built a vise-like rack to squeeze them tightly together during curing and also adopted a daily routine of spraying the wood with water to avoid shrinkage and warping. The concrete was left untouched when the forms were removed, leaving behind a wood-grain imprint on its surface, a ghost of the creation process.

Photo © Yoshihiro Koitani
A doubleheight bedroom for the clients' youngest son is illuminated from a skylight and has access to a small patio.

Completion Date: July 2012

Size: 4,300 square feet plus basement

Total construction cost: withheld

Sebastian Mariscal Studio
35 Medford St. #211
Somerville MA 02143
617 395 1210


Sebastian Mariscal Studio
35 Medford St. #211
Somerville MA 02143
617 395 1210

Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Project Manager: Jeff Svitak, Pavlina Ilieva

Project Team: Kuo Pao Lian, Mauricio De La Pena (Registered Architect)

Interior designer: Klara Valent

Landscape: Rana Creek

Lighting: Claudia Kappl

Other: Structural: DCI Engineers

General contractor: RGB Group

Yoshi Koitani

CAD system, project management, or other software used:



Exterior cladding
Cast in place Concrete: GSC Concrete Construction

Metal Panels: Vincent Designs

Wood frame: ArchiSpec

Glass: A & A Glass

Entrances: ArchiSpec

Special doors: Wood Screens - ArchiSpec

Interior finishes
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: Evanko Cabinetry

Resilient flooring: Adroit Solar

Photovoltaic system: Adroit Solar

Add any additional building components or special equipment that made a significant contribution to this project:
Geo-Thermal, green roofs and PV Panels