Dramatic details put sustainability and style under one roof. Photography by Ethan Pines

Bio Pick

by AnnaMaria Stephens | magazine | April 12, 2012

When it comes to J. Craig Venter, among the world’s most boldface scientific names, a simple motto may be the most apt: Work hard, play hard. The proof? Venter’s striking contemporary home in La Jolla, which serves as everything from an impromptu conference center to a staging ground for high-adrenaline adventures.

Venter, the entrepreneur and biologist famous for his pioneering work decoding the human genome, bought the property a few years ago for $6 million. It’s a short haul to UCSD, where Venter, a prominent alum, is currently building a zero-carbon structure on campus.

“There were two things that were really important to us: privacy and a great view,” says Venter, who lives with his wife, Heather Kowalski, and a miniature poodle named Darwin. “Our lot is extremely private, with views of the ocean and mountains. It feels like we’re isolated, even though we’re not.”

The couple focused on the architectural potential and not the particulars of the approximately 5,000-square-foot, L-shaped home. Originally designed in 1985, it featured an outdated terrarium and skylights. “We bought it and realized it needed about 10 times the renovations we imagined,” laughs Venter.

Venter and Kowalski, who also works as her husband’s publicist, hired the Carlsbad-based architecture firm Beery Group Inc. to handle the gut remodel. “My wife and I just wanted a place we enjoyed being every day and that had a wild, natural beauty to it,” Venter says.

The first step? Replacing a swath of stone wall that blocked the home’s enviable ocean views. Now, expansive sheets of glass frame the sparkling blue horizon. The architects also opened up the space considerably, balancing the home’s white stucco exterior and extensive stonework with oak and teak accents, which lend warmth, especially the paneled ceiling. They also updated the master bedroom fireplace and added a second one to the master bedroom deck.

Though the couple created home offices within an area of the master bedroom, Venter spends many work hours in the main floor’s guest bedroom, which has curved windows that span a 220-degree vista of sea and treetops. On any given day, various Venter employees gather in the living room to brainstorm with their boss, who helms Synthetic Genomics, a leader in the field of synthetic genomes and genome engineering. Friends also stop by frequently to hang out with the couple. “We love to entertain,” says Venter.

For Kowalski, an accomplished home chef, no “dream home” would be complete without a custom kitchen, which features gorgeous zebrawood cabinetry and black granite countertops, as well as two ovens, a gas stovetop, three dishwashers and a commercial refrigerator. “It was designed to be conducive to having people hang out while I cook,” she says. “It’s very open and there’s lots of seating.”

Throughout the house—which also includes a gym, home theater, and sauna—guests can admire artifacts amassed during Venter’s travels around the world aboard the Sorcerer II, a 95-foot-long sloop that he uses to collect marine genetic samples. (Venter, who grew up sailing, says he’s logged 60,000 miles so far.) The pieces range from wooden ship models by a celebrated French carver in the Seychelles to a fright-inducing 5-foot Fijian warrior carved from a single log, as well as three large paintings from Edward Epp, an artist the couple discovered while sailing around British Columbia and Alaska.

Just off the house, an expansive ipe wood deck—another popular gathering place for work and play—sits atop a garage that protects some of Venter’s most prized possessions. The couple’s “toys” include dirt and street motorcycles, bicycles and longboards, as well as a small car collection that includes an Aston-Martin convertible, one of the first Tesla electric cars, and a sporty new mileage-efficient Range Rover Evoque.

Venter is quick to point out that his hobbies—he’s also got a 45-foot jet boat—don’t compromise his commitment to sustainability. (In 2009, his company signed a $300 million deal with Exxon Mobil to develop renewable energy sources.)

“The environment was a big part of rebuilding,” he says. “Our entire roof is a variety of solar panels. You can see them from Google Earth!” The advanced system produces enough energy to heat the house’s water supply and pool and fully charge Venter’s Tesla. 

“It’s all about the balance of things,” he says. In other words: Work hard, play hard, and try to save the world while you’re at it.