Homeowners Jill and Chris Gwaltney; photography by Ethan Pines

Shack Adjustment

by AnnaMaria Stephens | magazine | July 9, 2012

In the terra-cotta-dotted enclave of Emerald Bay, one home catches the eye among the architectural mix of usual suspects. Laid-back and comfortable, the three-story standout is no Tuscan transplant, but a modern spin on a more local classic: the beach shack.

That’s exactly what owners Chris and Jill Gwaltney asked for when they first approached Corona del Mar’s Laidlaw Schultz Architects about designing their new home in the exclusive gated community in Laguna Beach.

“I pictured something that was out of Oregon or Washington,” explains Chris, a painter represented locally at Peter Blake Gallery in Laguna Beach. “Those houses where you can batten down the hatches and handle a big wind storm or rain, but then you can open it again, shake yourself like a dog and dry off in the sun.”

“Chris is a surfer, an outdoor guy,” explains Scott Laidlaw, the principal architect on the project. “He wanted natural materials that would weather and age over time.”

Recent empty nesters, the Gwaltneys also knew precisely what they didn’t want. “So many places around here have a massive street presence,” says Chris. “They’re like something out of Dune, huge and hanging over everything. It’s ominous.”

The couple’s property, which is perched near a grassy area near the beach, doesn’t quite meet the sand, but it does provide a prime vantage point. Unlike many of their neighbors, who must make do with merely gazing at the sea, the Gwaltneys can take in all of Emerald Bay. “We oriented all of the outdoor spaces to that view,” says Laidlaw. “It feels like you’re right on the beach.”

Set back from the street with a gently sloping driveway, the structure isn’t exactly a shack, but it riffs on the idea with a cedar-clad exterior and an evocatively aged copper roof, just the kind of authenticity craved by the Gwaltneys.

The wood siding wraps around the overhang of a large terrace just off the main living area, while the exterior bluestone paving continues from the patio into the home, where it meets with foot-worn French oak flooring. Expansive glass doors slide open to let in the salty air.

“The concept of the house is to blur the line between indoor and outdoor living,” says Laidlaw. “The whole ocean side of the house dematerializes.”

On the top floor, Laidlaw Schultz ushered the outside in again with a wall of copper—the same patinaed material as the roof—to divide the master bedroom from the commode. A glass door leads from the sunken shower directly to a secluded patio, where the couple enjoys private soaks in a tiled spa.

The full-service firm designed or selected nearly every aspect of the interior, from the furnishings and light fixtures to the linens and flatware, keeping their clients’ desired aesthetic in mind with every decision. Laidlaw even convinced an elevator manufacturer to ship an untreated steel unit, lest a stainless finish throw off the wabi-sabi vibe of it all.

“There’s nothing formal in the house,” says Chris. “I wanted everything to show—the beams, the hardware, everything. We wanted it to rust. It’s honest.”

Jill, who runs the digital marketing company Rauxa, points out that the purposely imperfect house holds up well to the 20-somethings who frequently visit with the Gwaltneys’ two grown kids, Cooper and Dylan. The downstairs game room—where Jill presides as resident pingpong champion—is Cooper’s favorite hangout.

Throughout the process, Chris oversaw the aesthetic decisions while his wife, a successful entrepreneur, handled the budget. “I always tell people that he did a much better job than I did,” she deadpans.

The collaborative relationship between artist and architect led to some of the home’s most striking details. In the breezy lanai room just off the main terrace, for example, Laidlaw designed a 12-seater table from Chris’ old glass painting palettes, which were slipped facedown into a steel frame.

Chris commissioned his friend, artist Marlo Bartels, to create a custom tile installation for the master bath. Laidlaw’s only request when it came to the exuberant piece was that it be done entirely in white. Bartels also designed the fire pit on the terrace, where he was free to go wild with color. Original artwork hangs throughout the home, including wood sculptures by Joe Brubaker and bronzes by Cheryl Ekstrom, both friends of the Gwaltneys.

While luxurious touches abound, one seemingly mundane detail—a bright red, old-fashioned screen door downstairs—may actually be the most memorable.

“I wanted that ‘slam, slam-slam’ that the door makes,” explains Chris with an air of nostalgia. “I want the local kids to feel like they can come into our freezer and grab a Popsicle. Now that’s the sound of a real beach house.”