San Diego Teaches Us How Micro-Living Can Thrive

By Erika Heet / Published by Dwell
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A professor takes the first step toward creating a new model for the city.

It was the middle of the aughts when Woodbury University professor Hector Perez rallied a group of architects to pool their resources and buy nine lots in the historic Barrio Logan neighborhood of San Diego, near the Mexican border, to develop as campus space for the school. Then the economy stalled, and the plans for the university shifted to another area nearby. But the architects kept the parcels with the intention of developing them in a way that would best serve the community. 

From the mezzanine of his 450-square-foot apartment at La Esquina, an eight-unit live/work building in San Diego’s Barrio Logan neighborhood, designer, artist, and Woodbury University professor Patrick Shields chats with fellow professor Hector Perez, who spearheaded the project.

The first lot to be developed now holds a double-height, mixed-use building of Perez’s design, where, in less than 4,000 square feet, he has created eight live-work units, each with a dedicated outdoor space. "I’m sort of the canary in the coal mine, being the first to build, but we were lucky in that all the units were leased by word of mouth before construction was even complete," says Perez, who named the building La Esquina, meaning "the corner" in Spanish—a reference to its position in the neighborhood. "It’s an incredibly scary thing to be a developer when you don’t come from money, with all the marbles riding on this thing."

Designer and digital fabricator Shawn Benson shares his 595-square-foot second-floor space with his wife, Jessica, and their daughter, Roux. The 15-foot-high ceilings allow plenty of room for a full-size ocean paddleboard.

Perez’s son, Adrian, also helped his dad with the multicolored doors.

The units, which range in size from 450 to 595 square feet, are all based on the same principle: a high-ceilinged main volume that gives way to a lower ceiling over the kitchen and bathroom, above which Perez shoehorned an open sleeping loft accessed by a ladder-like stairway. The smaller ground-floor units have street-side patios, while three larger units on the second floor include shared open courtyards and private patios overlooking the neighborhood, with its colorful murals and eclectic mix of prewar and colonial-style buildings. Working within a tight budget, Perez managed to build for  around $130 a square foot, relying on board-formed concrete walls, plywood paneling, and passive cooling. 

Upstairs, tenants and friends gather outside sculptor Chris Puzio’s apartment.

On the building’s exterior—Corbusian in its geometric whiteness, punctuated by a few bits of color—Perez has placed what he calls "my nod to the premier Hispanic figure in America," a 3-D mural of Cesar Chavez. Conceptualized by Perez’s 13-year-old son, Adrian, executed by artists Titus Dimson and Tony Salamone, and designed to be viewed with 3-D glasses, the portrait "is based on a dignified image of Chavez, rendered in a graphic, 21st-century way," says Perez. It’s an appropriate gesture for the neighborhood: Just a few blocks away, Cesar E. Chavez Parkway leads to a large park named for the human-rights activist. Adrian, who grew up while this project was being completed, knows firsthand the dedication required to create a thoughtful development. "He was there with me from day one, clearing weeds, and picking up trash from the lot," says Perez. "He says he’ll never be an architect," he adds with a laugh. "We’ll see." 

The Bensons’ patio is semi-privatized by horizontal slats.

Like the other larger upstairs units, Puzio’s includes two loft spaces flanking the kitchen, whereas those below have one.

On any given day, the tenants—all current students, graduates, and instructors from Woodbury—can be found working on art and architecture projects in their apartments, their doors left open to maximize light and welcome the ever-present sea breezes. They meander into one another’s spaces to share meals, to collaborate, or to spontaneously gather in the afternoon. "I’m fascinated and inspired by the work that every single one of these people does," says Perez, who often drops by on his way to and from Woodbury, just blocks away. "There are creative collaborations happening all the time. 

The living room is tucked beneath one of the lofts, which are accessible by a steep ladder-like staircase and fronted by pegboard.

"When the nine of us bought these lots, we knew a dynamic would evolve," Perez adds. "Being the first one out, I was concerned that the dynamic would not be as lively as it is, but it’s so alive. I only know that you have to build the project that you would love to live in."

The building’s exterior includes a 3-D mural of Cesar Chavez conceptualized by Perez’s son, Adrian.

La Esquina Floor Plan

A 510-Square-Foot Corner Unit

B 450-Square-Foot Unit

C 525- and 595-Square-Foot Units

D Bathroom

E Kitchen

F Terrace-Courtyard

Creative brainstorming sessions often take place in the building's outdoor spaces. "Generally we open the porch doors all the way to have any meetings or [do] collaborative work," explains designer Shawn Benson.

"Food generally plays a part in the exchanges," explains Benson, "so the adjacent kitchen plays its part in lending to that [collaborative] atmosphere."

"When it's time to put our noses to the grind stone and produce work, we head upstairs," Benson says. "Myself and one or two fellow designers will chip away at things in the loft into the evenings."

"The simple volume of the space and large openings let light and air flow freely," Benson says. "The environment is always pleasant even without air conditioning or heating."

"Most of us overlap on informal and formal ventures all the time," Benson says. "I'm currently working on some pro-bono work with one of the downstairs neighbors on design research. The parking lot serves as a living laboratory at times as well."

Project: La Esquina
Architect: Hector Perez

Erika Heet


Erika Heet has been working in publishing for more than 20 years, including years spent as a senior editor at Architectural Digest and Robb Report. She has written for Architectural Digest, Robb Report, Interiors, Bon Appétit, Sierra Magazine, and The Berkeley Fiction Review. She recently wrote the foreword to New Tropical Classics: Hawaiian Homes by Shay Zak. She lives in a Topanga cabin with her artist husband and two children.

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