There’s no easy way to get to Stinson Beach. The last few miles of every route are winding snakes of sharp curves and steep grades. But the stomach-turning journey doesn’t deter visitors. Often more than ten times as many day-trippers as locals can be found along this short stretch of Pacific coast just north of San Francisco.
Life here is blissful indeed, but for the 800 or so people who call Stinson Beach home, the risks of coastal living are real. Sitting in the sand with Peter Dwares, who bought a home here in 2005, I get a beach-chair tour of the tiny seaside cul-de-sac. "That house over there went into the ocean once," he tells me, pointing toward a tall wooden structure sited just steps from the waves. "A winter storm sent water over all three stories."
Dwares recounts the neighborhood history casually, knowing that his own home is unlikely to meet such a fate. His architects, Matthew Peek and Renata Ancona of Studio Peek Ancona, designed an elevated living space next to his 1940s modernist bungalow that is engineered to withstand floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, and the potentially drastic rise of sea levels. The structure is the first completed prototype of a model they envision being appropriate for any number of low-lying areas.
"We were inspired by the floating architecture of Venice,"
Prior to establishing their practice in San Francisco, Peek and Ancona lived for many years in Italy, where Ancona was born and raised. "We were inspired by the floating architecture of Venice," says Peek, who studied there on a Fulbright scholarship. Practicing alongside leading European architects and engineers, Peek cultivated his aptitude for technological innovation—–a skill that is most evident in the use of concrete and steel. In the case of Dwares’s house, the concrete forms a floating foundation with thickened edges, set flat on the sand, as opposed to resting on piers buried deep in the ground, which is often done in coastal zones. The system also has environmental merit, Peek explains, "using 30 percent fewer materials than conventional flood zone foundations."
The architects’ design process was steered in part by a multitude of zoning regulations set by organizations ranging from the Stinson Beach Village Association all the way up to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The structure had to be elevated at least 12 feet off the ground, and the interior area could comprise no more than 450 square feet. Peek and Ancona made up for the space restrictions with ipe decking on all sides of the house totaling 350 square feet. Given the spectacular views, it was hardly a compromise—–indoor-outdoor living is possible almost year-round.
The fair climate also allowed for natural green features, such as passive heating and cooling. With the windows open, cross breezes off the ocean keep the rooms comfortable on warm days. When the temperature drops and the windows are shut, solar heat warms the interior. The exterior rain screen creates an air chamber around the building that adds extra insulation. In Peek’s initial sketches for the house, he’d imagined an even more dramatic passive strategy—–essentially a giant moon roof that would pivot open completely to reveal a full sky view. While that concept didn’t fly, the overall efficiency of the design did earn the project Platinum status in Marin County’s green-building rating system.
Among the sustainable features, the most visually compelling is the landscaping in the entry courtyard, which feels at once tropical and quintessentially native. Using only drought-resistant plants, landscape designer Michael Bernsohn established a garden that attracts myriad butterfly and insect species. From the cantilevered deck, yellow monarchs can be spotted making their way to the botanical feast.
The garden and front patio supplement the modest living space upstairs. Peek Ancona’s addition contains just one main, multipurpose room with a modular Murphy bed for sleeping. Glossy wood floors and minimal furnishings create a tranquil atmosphere, enhanced by the sound of waves drifting in through large windows. "I wanted it to feel a little Pacific Rim but also nautical," Dwares says. A collection of Asian-influenced art and a large model ship reflect his fusion concept. Peek adds that at night the entire structure glows like a lantern through the exterior red cedar ventilation wall.
From the main room, a short hallway leads to a Japanese-style master bathroom tiled in green slate, and beyond it is a narrow outdoor alcove just the right size for Dwares’s elliptical machine, which has a direct view of the ocean. While the seaward vistas call the most attention, Dwares didn’t want to neglect the view to the east of the house up the lush slope of Mount Tamalpais. A set of sliding doors opens to reveal the profusion of redwoods and ferns. "It’s just amazing to wake up in here," Dwares muses.
Dwares and his girlfriend, Sonia Pilar, awaken almost every weekend in this airy nook along with their two-year-old daughter, Chloe. During the week they live in San Francisco, where Dwares runs a real-estate development company and a nonprofit organization for youth mentoring. While he could have chosen to buy a house about a quarter-mile north in the gated community of Seadrift, Dwares enjoys the more idiosyncratic assortment of both houses and people on his little street. Neighbors and tourists alike share the swath of public beach just a few houses away from his front door, and it’s clear he takes pleasure in chatting with just about anyone smart enough to know that the dizzying drive to Stinson Beach is worth every winding mile.
When not working in design, Sarah Rich writes, talks and forecasts about food and consumer culture.