After spending months restoring a Victorian in Portland, Oregon, architectural designer Grey Shaffer purchased a new property on Mount Washington, a Los Angeles neighborhood whose steep slopes and valley views have inspired an eclectic architectural vernacular since 1909. The original structure on the property—a 1920s "hunting cabin of sorts"—was not worth saving, which gave her tabula rasa to do her own thing.
Grey drew inspiration from the Sea Ranch for a renovation focused on simplicity that paid careful attention to environmental impact. The simplicity reads a bit rough around the edges, and Grey loves this. She prefers to allow the materials to "be simply what they are—a kind of soft brutalism where the shape is chunky but the materials are more refined and soft."
Before construction even began, Grey’s first experience with the home was in the garden, where, with neighbor approval, she camped out with the raccoons and coyotes to gain a more intimate understanding of the property. "It was paradise to me," Grey says of the views, the trees, and the wildlife.
Grey spent her early camping days dreaming up innovative plans to solve the site’s puzzle, which involved strict zoning limitations and a slope so extreme it requires a climb up sixty concrete steps from street level.
The camping experience provided Grey’s most significant insight: The home need not be contained within four walls. Inspired by the longtime California tradition of indoor/outdoor living, Grey conceived of her home as a "compound" of distinct units connected by outdoor decks and stairways, and she sought to incorporate every square foot of the property into regularly used, everyday space.
With a focus on "architectural honesty," Grey refinished the exterior with red cedar siding treated with a Danish hardening oil called Woca, which reveals the grain and will, over time, show patina. She left the steel posts "raw," knowing they would bleed into the wood and show wear. She hand troweled the interior plaster, and chose not to smooth stucco over the exterior concrete block retaining wall, which, she says, would have "covered up the truth of the material used."
Grey put the slope to work in a trilevel plan with a main unit next to the garden; a separate, below-deck studio; and a standalone cottage at the top of the site. The main level has two bedrooms, a full bath, a full kitchen, and a large living area, made even larger when the windows are opened to the enormous covered deck.
Below the deck, Grey dug out truckloads of dirt to create space for the substantial studio, outfitted with a bathroom, a small kitchen, and a bed.
Grey built the third unit, a guest cabin, on the slope above the home, using materials left over from construction. Tiny but illuminated by multiple windows, the cabin is a bright little replica of the main level.
As the owner, designer, and builder of the home, Grey put a lot of thought into how the space would function day to day. She wanted the home to be a platform for individual interpretation and experience—including truly creative child play—so she she allowed for considerable "blank space" in her design.
To keep the main room as large and open as possible, Grey chose to forego hallways, so the bedrooms and bath open directly to the living room. As an attractive side effect, when the doors are left open, light from the back deck pours through.
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Pursuing a minimalist design, Grey relied on built-ins and handcrafted items. Many of these furnishings were made by the talented local carpenter Nestor Muñoz and "belong to the space in a particularly seamless and perfect way," she says. Even the smallest details are handcrafted, such as the simple locking mechanism on the Dutch door to the children’s bedroom, or the vegetable-tanned leather pantry grip in the kitchen.
Grey solved a couple of space problems with dual-use fixtures. The ingenious shower/bath on the main level allows for both a large walk-in shower and a comfortable soaking tub, both with access to the protected back deck. "The tub almost works like a mini-plunge pool in the summertime," says Grey. "My kids really went bananas for it on hot days."
To create a comfortable sleeping option in the studio, Grey designed a Murphy bed, which elegantly folds into the built-in cabinet when not in use.
Every aspect of the home reflects Grey’s environmental commitment, starting with the landscape. She planted trees on the property "pretty much immediately," in order to establish a microclimate for the home (and to count toward her personal commitment to plant one million trees before she dies).
To reduce energy use, she introduced traditional passive strategies that make the most of Southern California’s mild climate. The large, covered porch and front-to-back openings cool the home with breezes that sweep up the hill from the arroyo below.
The built-ins seem to take their pale, boxy cue from one of the few pre-existing pieces of furniture: a kitchen table built by Grey’s father using salvaged wood. The rest of the furniture was either made for the home or rescued from another project. For example, in the studio, the oak parquet flooring was salvaged from "a nice lady off Craigslist," and the sliding doors are from the Reuse People of America.
The "soft" side of Grey’s approach is perhaps most clearly visible in the master bedroom, with its salvaged arched window, delicate pendant lights, and gracefully arranged pottery on display.
The room, the house, and the compound as a whole, all reflect Grey's holistic philosophy, which she sums up as "Simple needs met."
Builder/Contractor: Grey Shaeffer, Willa Work
Structural Engineer: Walter Reyes, Romb Engineers
Landscape Design: Grey Shaeffer, Willa Work
Interior Design: Grey Shaeffer, Willa Work
Light Fixtures: Brendan Ravenhill Studio
Select Artwork: Adrian Buschmann
Salvaged Material: The Reuse People of America
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