Joe Fletcher

Serendipity and smart design converge in a Southern California shoreside retreat

Kelly Dawson  – January 29, 2020 | Updated February 12, 2020

A marina bar was the unlikely birthplace of a striking modernist beach house in Southern California. Architect Robert Sweet of ras-a studio was having a drink at The Portofino Hotel in Redondo Beach when he overheard a stranger mention his hometown of Springfield, Missouri. He introduced himself to the stranger, Cindy Wyrsch, who was in town from Springfield for her daughter’s wedding. It turned out they had a friend in common back at home. “We talked for about an hour,” remembers Robert. “Springfield isn’t a small town, but it has a small-town mentality.” Little did he know that a jovial and distinctly midwestern connection over drinks would turn into a dream partnership in California a decade later.

After the wedding, Cindy’s daughter and son-in-law settled nearby in Rancho Palos Verdes and had two daughters. As the years passed, Cindy and her ex-husband John Wyrsch wanted to see their grandchildren as much as possible, and decided to buy a vacation home in the area. They lucked into a 1951 property at the end of a street that slopes toward the Pacific Ocean, overlooking sand and water that’s only accessible to a few dozen neighbors.

Ocean View
Joe Fletcher

Despite the coveted location, the home itself needed a lot of work. Weathered cedar shingles wrapped around the exterior, and a fireplace took up too much square footage in the dark living room. Even worse, a disjointed second-story layout lacked much of an ocean view, and the foundation was sinking into the earth. There was only one person Cindy could think of to help. “Cindy remembered Robert from the night they met, and found his work online,” says John. “We gave him a call, he came to the site, and we signed a contract soon after.”

John and Cindy didn’t want to wade through the process of getting permits for an entirely new build—grandkids grow up fast, after all—and they liked this home’s classic bungalow feel. It just needed a fresh start. “Most people would have started from scratch because it was in pretty bad disrepair from the land movement,” says Robert. “We had to take it down to the subfloor, but we wanted to keep that classic beach charm that drew Cindy and John to the house.”

Zoning restrictions and a sliding hillside to the north required Robert and project architect Paul Miller to keep the home’s original footprint at almost 1,650 square feet. They reinforced and retrofitted the foundation for any future land movement, and then built a split-roof structure that provided the second story with a wider sightline of the ocean. “Our biggest architectural move was shifting that roof plan from its original gable-like build,” says Robert. “It adds views, adds light, and acts as a big thermal chimney that draws in the warm air throughout the house and pushes it out through the upper windows. It might be boring compared to the cosmetic changes, but it’s a big deal.”

Staircase
Joe Fletcher

“The original floorplan was very do-it-yourself and confusing. On the second story, you walked through a shower to get to a bedroom,” says Robert. “It had to be harmonized, but the rooms had to stay pretty much where they are. So to make everything feel open, we removed the drywall—adding 10 more inches of ceiling height—and exposed the natural timber everywhere but the bathrooms. It’s an honest use of materials: You see what you get. The timber and white oak floors fit with the warm aesthetic, and make the small space feel bright and welcoming.” That generous use of wood was also used for the new exterior, in which Robert swapped the original shingles with ipe wood for a fire-resistant finish.

The vintage staircase and chimney were replaced with floating oak steps and slatted oak balusters that create a natural wood art piece in the living room. The kitchen was kept in the same location, but cabinets that once separated it from the adjoining dining space were removed. It’s all an exercise in how small changes can make a big impact. The kitchen, dining, and living areas are all seamlessly connected to a deck with a second dining table and an outdoor shower. When the dining room’s two sets of bifolding doors are open, the footprint seems to expand as salty breeze billows in.

Kitchen
Joe Fletcher

John and Cindy visited the site regularly through the year-long rebuild, and received thorough video updates when they weren’t staying at a nearby hotel. John says that the process was much easier than it sounds, laughing when he mentions how he and Cindy went with 95 percent of Robert’s ideas. “The one we didn’t: Robert didn’t think we needed air conditioning—common when you’re this close to the beach,” says John. “But we did it anyway.”

Master Bath
Joe Fletcher

John and Cindy each have their own master bedrooms on the second level, and the first level has a bunk room for their grandchildren. In the three years since the home was completed, they’ve enjoyed holidays and summer vacations, letting the kids drift freely indoors and out. The house was always intended for family, but John has learned that it’s also a place to gather friends. And given how this all got started, that mentality makes perfect sense. “I took a bunch of friends from Springfield to the house recently, and it can comfortably sleep six,” he says. “The bunk beds are six feet long, so sometimes you can even fit an adult in there.”

The Five Essential Elements of a Modern Beach House

Be Open

The original kitchen was in a good location, it was just closed off from the rest of the home. “It used to be a smaller, peninsula-style kitchen. There were these weird cabinets that separated it from the living space and dining area,” says Robert. He removed the cabinets, made the kitchen slightly bigger, and added an entertaining detail that brings the party outside. “We opened up that window between the kitchen and terrace, which allows that countertop to spill outside and become an outdoor bar.”

Embrace Passive Cooling 

A steady ocean breeze can keep this house at a comfortable temperature year-round, thanks to the new open stairwell that doubles as a “thermal chimney.” As heat rises throughout the house, this design draws the hot air up and out through the second level’s windows. 

Work with the Environment 

The home’s foundation has been retrofitted to move with the land, so that it won’t sink into it like it has in the past. Rob Jones of Jones Landscapes chose drought-tolerant plants to work with the arid surroundings, and the ipe exterior is fire resistant, just in case. “The original house had cedar shingles, and we couldn’t have replaced them because they don’t carry the same fire rating these days,” continues Robert. “But ipe actually has a ‘Class A’ fire rating, because it’s so dense and has so many natural oils and waxes.”

Keep Materials to a Minimum

Given that the home is relatively compact, Robert used one optical illusion to make the spaces feel larger: exposed beams. “We took out the drywall, exposed the timber, and sanded them down,” adds Robert. “We didn’t want to overwhelm the small footprint with a bunch of different materials, so continuing the exposed beams throughout made it look larger and more cohesive. We picked other woods that would complement the ceilings and kept the other materials simple, like the cement tiles and porcelain slab countertops. I think that serves the home better, and gives it the breezy quality John and Cindy wanted.”

Don’t Shed a Shed

The shed that provides a wall for the deck’s outdoor shower happens to be original, too. “I really liked how eclectic it was, but it was worn down and a little ratty,” says Robert. So he went about simplifying the structure as he did the home, adding the same wood exterior and standing-seam metal roof. “It’s great for storage, seeing as the house is so open. The outdoor shower is nice, of course, with the beach being right there.” 

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