San Diego project makes the most of a steep and leafy site

“Our house is like a little red ruby perched on the edge of a green canyon.”

That’s how Tod Clark describes the home he shares with his wife, Lisa Loftus, and their cat, Buddy, on one of those slender peninsulas that extend north like fingers in San Diego’s Mission Hills.

From the interior, the structure feels like an elegant treehouse – glass doors slide into wall pockets, allowing the sculptural fronds of the surrounding Phoenix palms to extend inside on two floors.

“On warm evenings, we slide the doors wide open and look down into the canyon, where we see foxes, coyotes, hawks, and falcons,” Clark says.

The house appears low-slung from the street, giving little hint of the airy interior and steep site.

Its exterior color was a challenge for Clark to find: Loftus, a fashion photographer, requested a distinctive red that matched a purse she had spotted in a magazine ad.

The entrance is on the living room level at the top; the bedrooms are on the two lower floors.

“The top floor used to be compartmentalized and introverted. Now it’s wide open and focuses outward,” Clark says.

He removed several interior walls to give the space the feel of an outdoor room, complete with a peaked ceiling clad with painted, corrugated roofing, and glass pocket doors that dissolve three corners into thin air. For safety, unobtrusive cable railings span each opening, with a deck along one side.

To carve out room for a patio, Clark (who acted as the general contractor) added a retaining wall near the base of the palms. He backfilled with some of the soil excavated for the bottom level.

A graceful path curves down the slope past a handsome gable-roofed storage shed – painted red to match the house – that sits on its own platform.

At the bottom of the hill is a concrete deck, which features a built-in bench seat, a gas-fed firepit, and a sheltering palm tree ringed with a custom-designed bar that Clark had built as a surprise for Loftus’s birthday.

“We call it the Saturn Bar, after the rings of Saturn,” Clark says. The deck makes an ideal spot for entertaining friends.

Design: Safdie Rabines Architects, San Diego ( or 619/297-6153) 

Living among the palms
The tropical feeling of the home is enhanced by the way it uses the steep site and landscape.

Ban curtains. Nothing says the tropics like open views of palm trees that sit so close you can reach out and touch them.

Carve out flat areas. A small deck and bottom-level patio offer outside sitting areas, and a 10- by 10-foot platform to the side provides room for a storage shed.

Uplight the palms. Lights aimed into overhanging fronds above the patio create a sculptural green umbrella.

Use quiet lighting elsewhere. Rope lights routed into the underside of the railing add an indirect, diffused glow.

Rethink retaining walls. When space is limited, retaining walls serve as seating.

Include curves. In a natural setting, a straight line feels too hard. Here, outside spaces are softened by curves in a stairway of cast concrete, a circular firepit, and a flanking bench.

Punctuate with color. Vivid red sets off the house, making it appear to float in the trees.