This Overlooked Design Decision Pushed Me to My Dream House
Don’t forget this underrated step in the renovation process.
Join guest editor Camille Styles as she and her family transform a 1950s Malibu beach bungalow into their dream retreat—and in the process, discover a slower, more intentional way of living, rooted in the beauty of the West. It’s all part of our journey to the Sunset 2023 Idea House, a home that displays the latest innovations in Western home design.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of having a house by the ocean. When I lie in bed at night, my mind escapes to the sounds of the sea, the fantasy of a slower-paced life against the backdrop of crashing waves. But for the first time ever, it’s not just a dream anymore—it’s real life. A year and a half ago, my husband, Adam, and I (along with our two kids) took the plunge on our years-long dream of having a house in California, and it’s been exciting and stressful, a roller coaster racing from “OMG we got the house!!!” to “What are we doing??!”
But even with the risks, the fears, the frustrations—it’s the greatest adventure we’ve had so far as a family. As we prepare to gut and renovate our 1950s bungalow on the shores of Zuma Beach, I know in my heart that this is so much more than the story of a house. It’s the journey of our family—how we came to California to create a new chapter, one that was about slowing down, being present, and connecting with nature and with each other.
The story starts during the first few months of the pandemic, confined to our home in Austin, Texas. With so few distractions, we found ourselves taking a fresh look at some of the choices we were making with our lives. Though we’d talked for years about having a vacation home at the beach, it was always in the context of some far-off day in the future. But with the pandemic came a new level of flexibility; no longer did we have to be in one location to function in work, school, and life. Suddenly we questioned why we weren’t actually doing things we’d been talking about for years. Instead of waiting for “someday” in the vague future, could we start moving toward our big dream right now?
The next thing we knew, we were online looking at real estate on the north end of Malibu. During our previous travels there, Adam and I had both felt an instant connection with this part of town that’s more about surfing, farms, and hiking trails than it is paparazzi. There’s a great burrito place, a local grocery store that makes amazing smoothies, a surf shop, and not a whole lot else. We’d been to dinner at a neighborhood farm where we ate margherita pizza at picnic tables under the stars. The cell signal is terrible—just the kind of change from “normal life” we were craving.
As we searched, there was this one beach shack with a crazy floor plan that we kept coming back to. It had some issues, but it also had sunset views over the Pacific, doors that opened up to the sea breezes, and citrus and avocado trees. When we got an alert that the seller dropped the price, we booked our flights, and 48 hours later we were headed to see the house in person.
The next few weeks were full of negotiations and uncertainties, but when the dust settled, the house was ours. We hired our architect, Doug Burdge, and spent the next year going back and forth between Austin and Malibu, making our plans and spending as much time as we could during summer and school holidays with our family just soaking up the beauty of our new retreat. When the world began returning to normal, life for all of us got just as busy as before—in some ways, more so because the previous divisions between work and home life were blurred. I learned that finding the slower pace that I desired would require recommitting, again and again.
And that’s what I do whenever we make it out to Malibu. We spend our days there walking on the beach, cooking fresh meals, reading in the sun, and making rest a priority. When I’m at the beach, I notice how my senses are fully awakened—how much more I notice in the world around me. There’s this feeling of being more alive, and although I wouldn’t want every day to be like vacation, there’s realization that I can choose to bring more moments of intentionality and pure presence into every day.
If you’re here for the juicy details of the design and renovation process, don’t worry, we’ll get there! But for me, the first and most important step in any design process is defining how you want to feel in the finished space. It’s getting to know the soul of a house before you draft a plan or hammer a nail or hang a curtain. When you picture yourself in a space, do you want to feel calm or energized, cozy or refreshed? Nothing influences our state of mind quite like our homes, so bringing an awareness of the desired effect is quite possibly the most impactful step in any design process. I’m thankful for the year-plus we’ve been able to spend out here while we plan. It’s given us time to just be at the property and let it tell us what it wants to be: a place for unhurried conversations, spending time out in nature, and savoring long meals around a table with people we love.
Two weeks ago, as we filed for our final round of permits with the city, I picked up my rental car from Los Angeles International Airport and drove an hour along the Pacific Coast Highway, windows down and the sun on my face. I couldn’t wait to dive fully into my California life for a few days—to see, taste, feel, and breathe in everything this new place has to offer. I’m excited to see how our adventure here unfolds, and I’m surprised at the journey that’s already unfolding within me.