Architect David Wilson’s Stinson Beach House, Powered by the Sun


The coastline, as realtors like to point out, isn’t getting any bigger. That’s why building a house near the ocean often means making the most of a narrow lot. The property that Berkeley architect David Wilson and his wife, pediatrician Stacia Cronin, found in 2007 for their weekend house in Stinson Beach was no exception: It could accommodate only a 1,400-square-foot structure.

For a family of four (son, Chase, is in college and daughter, Kai, is in high school) and frequent out-of-town visitors, the size restriction could have been a problem, but Wilson didn’t allow himself to feel hemmed in. After designing some very large houses, he was determined to show how much he could do in a small footprint. His strategy was to create a spacious great room that would feel like it was part of a much grander home. It would have banquettes with hidden storage and custom furniture, including a coffee table on wheels that Cronin could roll away to make room for yoga. And there would be an oversize wood-slab dining table, long enough for extended family to gather for the holidays. Devoting so much space to the great room would mean making the bedrooms compact, but Cronin didn’t mind. “It’s about having priorities,” she says.

Wilson located the formal entry to the left of the two-car garage, at the top of a stairway; from the entry, a hallway (with one bedroom and one bath on each side) leads to the great room. The low ceilings of the bedrooms and the much higher ceiling of the great room result in the overlap of two distinct rooflines.

“It was relatively easy to make this house energy efficient,” says Wilson. The location on a south-facing hillside means solar panels on the roof can generate all of the power the household requires. “We’re zeroed out,” says Wilson, who estimates that the photovoltaic system cost about $40,000 and he saves at least $250 a month. It helps that in Stinson there’s no real need for air-conditioning. As for heat, the southern exposure allows sunlight to penetrate deep into the house, where it’s absorbed by the concrete-slab floor. At night, warmth radiates out from the slab. “The southern orientation is magical,” says Wilson. “It’s as if the building were heating itself.”

The palette reflects a modern take on rustic materials. On the exterior, Wilson created a collage of Douglas fir (for the deep overhangs), corrugated metal (for the rear volume), rippled glass (on the dark-framed garage doors) and board-formed concrete made from four-by-eight sheets that he cut into smaller pieces to create a “tile effect” and to avoid waste. Four-inch-square steel tubes support the balcony and roof, and though they’re functional, their exact angles (and oxide-red hue) were chosen to enliven the composition. Even the plantings offer clear juxtapositions: spiky aloes planted in geometric aluminum troughs line the balcony and beds of billowing feather grass soften the hillside surrounding the back patio.

Inside, Wilson continued to explore ways of giving humble materials modern bravado. One example is the fireplace, a perfect rectangle made out of rough-hewn Wyoming ledge-stone. Another is the ceiling, which is covered in reclaimed planks of Douglas fir from a 1914 Stanford University gymnasium (deconstructed in 2002). The wood’s many imperfections add character to the butterfly roof, which appears to float above the house, thanks to a bank of clerestory windows. The windows minimize glimpses of neighboring houses (solving the common beach-house challenge of close proximity to other buildings) while also framing views of Mt. Tamalpais in the distance.

Wilson, who used a Google application called SketchUp to create 3-D renderings of his beach house, took suggestions from his wife throughout the process. “One thing I really admire in David is his willingness, if something is not quite right, to revisit his decisions,” Cronin says, citing the back-and-forth over details as small as the tone of gray for the coffee table’s resin top.

Part of Wilson’s design process was creating mash-ups of colors and textures. In the kitchen, lower cabinet doors are made of quartersawn ash. Thanks to mineral stains, their surfaces are “less uniform, and more woody looking, than a lot of the cabinet woods you see,” says Wilson. The upper cabinets are made of acrylic sheets embedded with reeds (a product from 3form). The most unusual item may be the range hood, which Wilson fashioned from a crinkled sheet of stainless steel. The granite countertops have a brushed finish, and the gray concrete floors are enlivened by a Christopher Farr carpet. Together, the couple picked out an eggplant hue for the integral plastered master bedroom walls as well as a much bolder berry for the kitchen’s concrete-tile backsplash, which was their last major decision. “There are some things you can’t decide until everything else is settled,” says Cronin.

Although Wilson loves designing, he hates shopping, so furnishing the house was largely Cronin’s responsibility. Because the couple wasn’t moving from another house—they still have their main residence in Berkeley—she had the fun of starting from scratch at her favorite haunts: The Gardener in Berkeley and ABC Carpet & Home in New York. Unique finds—such as a pair of ballot boxes (from a no-name junk store) that serve as end tables in the master bedroom and decorative pillows from Ellington & French in Berkeley—fill in the space. Adorning the walls are Wilson’s photographs of humble agricultural and industrial buildings. Through his eyes, their modest details become compelling, which can also be said of his architecture.

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