Before & After: A Surfer’s San Francisco Home Helps Keep an Eye on the Waves

Levy Art & Architecture transforms a disjointed Marina-style house into a laidback lookout on Ocean Beach.
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If you’ve walked around San Francisco, chances are you’ve passed a Marina-style house. After all, the style originated in the city’s Marina District. "They were simple houses: one story over a garage," says architect Ross Levy, who overhauled a specimen on Ocean Beach last year.

Although the house faces the Pacific Ocean, much of its outlook was compromised by poor window placement and an ad-hoc addition. "Sometime in the ’60s, someone plunked a third floor on top of the house, and they really did plunk it down," says Levy. "It was like someone airlifted some plywood and nailed it together. And then you had a third floor." 

This meant that the resulting interior floor plan was "strangely arranged" and not conducive for the home’s most recent owner, a passionate surfer drawn to its proximity to the water. Levy sums up the client’s brief: "See the waves from wherever you are. That was the program."

Before: Exterior

Before: The house, painted gray, was originally built in 1942 and had been remodeled and added onto significantly in the ensuing years.

After: Exterior

Taking the scale and massing of the neighboring buildings into consideration, Levy Art & Architecture completely reorganized the floor plan and added 750 square feet in a remodel completed in 2020.

The home’s existing layout clustered the living spaces on the second floor— there, the front door opened into the living room, and the staircase was crammed into a narrow passage. The bedrooms were then spread between the two floors, and there was an ocean-facing deck at the third level, but the view on one side was blocked by the house. 

For the remodel, the team flipped the floor plan, relocating the communal spaces to a gently expanded third floor. Dubbed the "lookout," that level is now filled with natural light and has an enviable vantage point of the water. The designers reduced the number of bedrooms to three and grouped them all together on the second floor. 

Before: Entry

Before: Marina-style houses typically have an external staircase that connects the garage to the front door on the second level. Here, the entry opened into the living and dining rooms, and an internal closet blocked the view of the ocean.

After: Entry

The architects created a proper entry by placing it between the first and second floors, defining it with Clé tiles featuring a wave motif. A half flight of stairs leads to the second floor, where all of the bedrooms are located.

Before: Stairs

Before: The internal staircase was tucked into the back of the living room.

After: Stairs

The architects gave the new oak-and-steel staircase pride of place. The stairway leading down goes to the garage level, where the team installed a den and laundry facilities, as well as a full bath for rinsing off after a surf session.

"People like to go towards the light," says Levy, noting that the way the sun cascades down the stairs naturally draws people to walk up them towards the living spaces.

A cut-out in the hallway of the bedroom wing gives a glimpse of the staircase. "We wanted to experience the stairs from more than just one angle," says Levy.

As the architects started cataloging the available space during the preliminary design phase, they made a happy discovery: "There was this cavity between the second and third floors in the building that we didn't fully understand until we started measuring and tearing stuff apart," says Levy. "That gave us all kinds of design opportunities that we hadn’t really counted on."

The team anchored the new design with a bold, sculptural staircase treatment, wherein the open oak tread appears suspended on a screen of steel rods. The delicate treatment allows light to flow down from the top floor. "One of the perennial problems with the reverse floor plan remodel is, how do you get the people from the bottom to the top?" says Levy. "So, we made this floating, rod-suspended stair to be as light as air, and to really draw your eyes straight up." 

Before: Third-Floor Stair Landing

Before: Previously, there was a sliding glass door to the third-floor deck at the top of the stairs. Positioned as it was, the best viewpoint in the house had no relationship to the living spaces.

After: Third-Floor Stair Landing

The staircase presents a sculptural moment and leads fluidly into the open living spaces.

Before: Third-Floor Deck

Before: Tucked as it was in the facade, the deck’s views were partially obstructed.

After: Third-Floor Deck

By extending the deck out to meet the roofline of the floor below, the architects were able to create a perch for seeing up and down the beach. "All of the railings are marine-grade stainless," says Levy, which helps withstand the corrosive effect of the salt and sand. A stucco exterior and fiberglass Marvin windows also define the facade.

Now, the home is more in sync with its surroundings—and even better, the homeowner’s lifestyle. Although the family only moved 20 minutes away from their last home in Bernal Heights, being this much closer to the water makes all the difference when taking advantage of good conditions. "For surfers, they can look at the surf report and [check the] cameras online," says Levy, "but there’s a lot to be said for being there."

Before: Living Room

Before: A vinyl picture window presented the main view from the living room.

After: Living Room and Dining Room

Now positioned at the top of the home, the living room and dining room have 10-foot-high ceilings and wide open views of the water. 

Clerestory windows help to bring in light from all sides and reduce the glare from the ocean.

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Before: Kitchen

Before: The kitchen had been updated more recently, but was relocated to the upper level.

After: Kitchen

Windows stretch from the counter to the ceiling to maximize the view. The difference in ceiling height gives the kitchen a cozier feel.

Before: Primary Suite

Before: Located in the bump-out on the third floor, the old bedroom had a great position in the home. Now, the living room enjoys that spot.

After: Primary Suite

The primary bedroom still has fantastic sight lines to the water from its second-floor location.

Fireclay Tile’s Hexite pattern covers the floor in the primary bathroom.

After: Rear Facade 

The backyard is a protected retreat out of the wind. The team added a balcony off of the kitchen at the third floor. It has a ship’s ladder to access the roof deck in order to service solar panels installed there. The balcony also has a grill for cooking al fresco. "You gotta be able to go out back and barbecue—this is the beach, after all," says Levy. 

Project Credits:

Architecture: Levy Art & Architecture (Melissa Todd, Shirin Monshipouri, and Ross Levy) (@levy_aa)

Builder: BBGC, Blair Burke General Contractor

Structural Engineer: FTF Engineering

Lighting Design: Levy Art & Architecture

Interior Design: Levy Art & Architecture (Frances Weiss)

Cabinetry Design/Installation: Eckhoff Furniture Manufacturing

Permit Consulting: Quickdraw

Metal: Local Metal

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