This Crisp California Residence Is All About the Courtyard

This Crisp California Residence Is All About the Courtyard

By Kelly Dawson
Cacti and patterned, pink tile add personality to a Manhattan Beach residence that embraces the outdoors.

Lalita and Fabio Koehler had been looking for the perfect property for years. Residents of Manhattan Beach, California, a coastal suburb of Los Angeles, Lalita hoped for an address that would allow their two children, Chloe and Lucas, to walk to school, and would feel like a retreat from her and her husband’s C-suite positions at an advertising agency. After three rental properties and years of house hunting, she came across a place that finally showed potential.  

Since Courtyard House is on a street that gets daily traffic from a nearby school, the home is protected by a concrete masonry wall that shields a courtyard, pool, and patio.  

"I found this group of people who flip houses, and I began to track their work," she says. "I introduced myself, and one of them is a real estate agent. He found this house off the market." 

Stucco on the exterior keeps costs low and acts as a neutral backdrop for wood accents and drought-tolerant plants. The courtyard gate leads to the front door, which is out of street view.

All of her patience had paid off. The house was built in the 1950s on a corner lot in a family-oriented neighborhood near a school and park. Once the home was theirs, Lalita began the second phase of her plan, which was to renovate. She hired an architect and got to work, but the resulting design didn’t feel right.

"We went through the exercise of designing the space, but then I held back before submitting permits," she remembers. "I had always dreamed of designing my own house, [but] it was not what I wanted to end up with."

"To dress the concrete up a bit, we did a burnished face to expose the aggregate—you get a really nice detail when you see them up close," says designer Robert Sweet. "To add some texture, we randomly rotated the blocks to use their cavities as planters." The row of cacti, aptly called "fence-post cacti," acts as a privacy wall between the entrance and courtyard. 

So, she practiced patience once again. And while Lalita was touring a nearby home of lead designer Robert Sweet of ras-a studio, who had been part of Dwell on Design in 2015, she realized that he could help her build the property she envisioned. "We started fresh," Sweet says. "They wanted a house with indoor/outdoor living, and they wanted to take advantage of their unique corner lot." 

The L-shaped lot—and the decision to create a private courtyard and patio—made the kitchen and dining space the natural hub of the ground floor. Sweet installed full-length cabinetry on the western wall for storage, and included a wood niche for convenience. 

Sweet devised an L-shaped layout with an open kitchen, living, and dining room that connects seamlessly to an outdoor area by way of disappearing sliding doors. On one side, the great room flows into a courtyard, and on the other, it opens to a patio and pool. The outdoor area is entirely enclosed by a concrete masonry wall to shield it from public view. "The L-shape makes it so everything points outdoors," Lalita says. "When the sliding doors are open, it makes the room feel much larger than it is. It's a lot of glass, but at the same time, it's a very private house." 

Sweet customized modular IKEA cabinetry and paired it with Caesarstone countertops in the kitchen. Penny tiles were used as the backsplash.  

Lalita also requested that the residence be efficient and warm. "We lived in São Paulo, San Francisco, and Paris, which are dense cities. So we're used to making the most of small spaces. I didn’t want to have a space for the sake of having a space," she says. "And even though I wanted a modern house, I didn’t want it to feel sterile. I know it’s a stereotype, but as a Brazilian, we’re warm people. It was super important to me that the home felt welcoming—so we needed to bring in some color."

"Fabio is a triathlete and wanted a lap pool, and it also serves as a sort of plunge pool for the family," Sweet says. "It has a mechanical system that essentially turns the pool into a treadmill for his training." Western red cedar was used throughout the interior ceilings, and polished concrete flooring continues outside as pavers.  

Sweet solved the need for efficiency on the ground floor by lining the entrance with cacti as a natural barrier between the courtyard and the front door. "You can enter the courtyard without being in the interior of the house, as a way to welcome guests and the mailman alike while still having some privacy," he says. 

The den sits on the far end of the living area, and it has the only TV in the house—a family rule so that they spend time together. The space can also be a guest room for relatives visiting from Brazil. There are two bedrooms and a master suite on the second level. 

Shop the Look
Léon & George Desert Cactus
Make a statement with this tall angular cactus and its yellow/green pattern. With thorns as sharp and tough as its personality, it is a low maintenance and attractive piece that will draw the attention of anyone. Like most cacti, it likes desert conditions with a lot of light and not a lot of water.
Estudio Persona Nido Chair
The Nido chair was the result of playing with the juxtaposition of shapes. The egg-like shape of the leather upholstered wood seat nesting in the cross shaped solid wood frame, gives it the name Nido, meaning nest in Spanish.
Schoolhouse x Ace & Jig Damask Throw Pillow
The Damask Throw Pillow is made in collaboration with ace&jig, makers of heirloom-quality textiles. Each fabric is designed on traditional wooden hand looms and woven in India using cotton sourced local to the weavers.

A wall of cabinetry in the kitchen eliminates the need for a separate pantry, and a den off the kitchen acts as the home’s sole TV room and a potential guest space. As for warmth and color, Western red cedar lines the ceilings, and pink brightens the front door and patio wall. Finally, drought-tolerant greenery beneath the staircase and alongside the masonry wall contrasts each structure with an abundance of texture.

"We wanted to add some fun and warmth to the courtyard," Sweet says. "So we opted for this color, and I love the pattern and the way it ties in with the front door." The red arrows cleverly point in the direction of the beach. 

"We debated a lot about the pink color and the wood ceiling," Latita says. "I was concerned about the color being an eyesore, and the cost of the wood. But the color really complements the house. And as for the wood, I still remember telling Fabio and Robert that they were right." 

It’s been seven years since the Koehlers moved to Manhattan Beach, but this address was worth all that patience. "We looked for a house where we would spend a lot of time as a family, and where the kitchen would be the hub that keeps us together," she says. "Robert understood that, and I also became very interested in his vision. For everything that we wanted, this house is on point." 

The team installed stainless-steel, prefabricated mesh on the interior of the switchback stairs, which acts as a cost-effective guardrail that lets in light. The plants will eventually grow up the mesh as a living wall.

Related Reading: A Renovated Ray Kappe Abode in Manhattan Beach

Project Credits:

Architect of Record: ras-a studio /

Builder: ras-a BUILD LLC

Structural Engineer: Eric McCullum

Landscape Design: Jones Landscapes

Other: H&H Drywall


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