Sunlight Plays a Starring Role in an Architect’s Family Home in L.A.

Walls of glass allow the unique light of the Upper Santa Monica Canyon to warm architect David Montalba’s boxy, concrete residence.
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It took strategy and patience to build the dream house David Montalba had long envisioned for his family. That’s the case whenever an architect takes on the project of his own home—it’s easy to be overly critical, after all—but the details of Montalba’s address were more personal than universal.

"We initially purchased the property in 2008 with a single-story, 1,600-square-foot ranch on it," he says. "We planned to live there for about five years with the intention of building our future family home, and then five years turned into eight years." 

Montalba’s biggest challenge was making sure that his four-bedroom home didn't look too large from the street.

In those intervening years, Montalba shared the ranch house with his wife and their two children while carefully considering all the ways in which their eventual new construction would blend into the Santa Monica neighborhood they loved more with each passing year. 

"The neighborhood is one of the older coastal canyons in L.A., with lots of mature trees, local history, and families that have lived in the neighborhood for a long time," he says. "Also, the natural light in the canyon, particularly in the Upper Santa Monica Canyon where we are, is really special—it has a warmth to it, but also a crispness that is unmatched." 

On the rare occasion that the weather is chilly, an expansive concrete fireplace can warm up the living area. 

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"The kitchen is the heart of the home, where we can enjoy the simplicity of being together as a family," Montalba says.

By the time Montalba and his family were ready to start construction, he knew what he wanted to build. The home he imagined would have clear connections to the outdoors, with a mix of Swiss and Californian design principles that nod to his upbringing in both places. Its use of materials and textures would play off the natural light that was bound to bounce off the walls, and its rooms would encourage family togetherness and effortless entertaining. And yet, given all this, there was one hurdle he had to surpass so that it could work: It couldn’t dominate the street.   

"The biggest challenge was making sure we didn’t overbuild and create something that didn’t coexist with the neighboring homes," he continues. "This was achieved by creating a vertical courtyard in which the house is organized. Los Angeles has a long history of courtyard buildings, and that, in combination with the privacy it offered, helped drive this concept. It’s essentially a three-level home pushed into the ground with a landscape that folds down to the basement level." 

The upstairs landing features an office, sitting area, and enough storage for a family of four. 

"Arriving at a second floor should not be to a hallway but to a room where the family can gather and be together with lots of natural light," he says.

Montalba increased the square footage of the new property to 5,000 feet, but because he built down rather than out, the home doesn’t immediately show its scale. It features a great room with a horizontal concrete fireplace and pocket doors that slide open to the pool. A second-floor landing has space for a much-needed office, and the master bedroom has a private balcony to let in the breeze. And in keeping with his wish for natural light, every room—including the basement—has an expanse of windows or doors that tie in the outdoor landscape. A radiant heating and cooling system ensures that the rooms stay comfortable.

 "Given Southern California’s temperate climate, it was important to make spaces where we could enjoy the outdoors from anywhere in the home," he adds. 

"The materials are natural, durable, yet contrast in their relation to one another," he says. "Ultimately, we wanted to balance the crispness of the architecture, like concrete, with the warmer edges of the wood."

"The home centers around a vertical courtyard that connects all three volumes, along with adjacent terraced gardens," he says. This feature brings light into every room of the home, including the basement, while also keeping them cool. 

The softness of the natural light is contrasted by the prevalence of concrete throughout the home, which was sandblasted on select areas to create texture. It’s paired with white oak in a variety of finishes, including corrugated and flat matte, to add warmth and color to the otherwise simple palette. That play on opposing materials is highlighted further by just how clean each room is—and that was part of Montalba’s strategy, too.   

"I have often found myself gravitating toward spaces that are uncluttered and give a strong sense of spirituality. In the world we live in, such spiritual moments are important to cultivate in life," he says. "Useful, organized, and discreetly tucked away storage was a big part of the design."

The kitchen and dining area features wraparound pocket sliding doors for easy indoor/outdoor living. The master bedroom's balcony receives extra privacy with the wood feature.

Through it all, Montalba’s thoughtfulness and patience paid off. It wasn’t always easy, and he says that he often second-guessed ideas in the middle of the night. But now that the home is finished and his family can gather in its shade and light, he’s grateful that his vision is complete. 

"I believe architecture and one’s environment can truly improve quality of life," he says. "I wanted to craft an environment that, while feeling architectural, we could truly use as a family." 

More from Montalba Architects:

This Mobile Studio in the Swiss Alps Is an Artist's Dream Come True

A 1970s Bungalow Is Transformed Into a Breezy Beach House in California

Project Credits:

Architect: Montalba Architects / @montalbaarchitects

Builder: Sarlan Builders

Structural Engineer: The Office of Gordon L. Polon

Civil Engineer: Wynn Engineering Inc.

Landscape Design: Elysian Landscapes, Inc.

Lighting Design: Sean O’Connor Lighting

Interior Design: Montalba Architects

Cabinetry Fabrication: Wider SA

Other: Soils Engineer, Grover Hollingsworth and Associates

Other: MEP Engineer: PBS Engineers, Inc.; Surveyor: M&M &Co


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