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25 years in the making, a dream house rises

Paul Zajfen's vision of a modern oasis in Laguna Beach is realized

January 06, 2014|By Sam Lubell
  • LAGUNA BEACH, CA-DEC. 09, 2013: Architect Paul Zajfen's sits with his wife, Susan Zajfen at their Laguna Beach home Monday, Dec. 9, 2013. Zajfen has spent years -- and years, and years -- trying to build his dream house in Laguna Beach. After lots of delays due to city design reviews, his house finally is built on four levels. (Photo By Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
LAGUNA BEACH, CA-DEC. 09, 2013: Architect Paul Zajfen's… (Allen J. Schaben…)

If you worked on a house for five years, you'd call it a labor of love, right? What if that process took 25 years? Is there a name for that?

This is the story behind architect Paul Zajfen's epic quest in Laguna Beach.

Zajfen, a design principal at the Los Angeles firm CO Architects, bought an ocean-view site on the steep, winding bluffs of Laguna in 1989. His dream was to create a modern oasis, hugging the landscape and opening to the elements. Then things got messy.

First, a lawsuit by locals to ensure that lots on Zajfen’s street were buildable held up the project for about five years. Next came changes to the neighborhood’s specific plan, which delayed construction for several more years. Around 2000, the architect began the painful slog through the local design review committee, a process that lasted until 2007.

Zajfen still grimaces at the thought of neighbors fighting his contemporary structure because it didn’t fit into the local guidelines calling for “rustic” architecture. In Laguna, that means re-creations of New England, Italian or Spanish Colonial designs.

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PHOTO GALLERY: Paul Zafjen's Laguna Beach house

“Even though I’ve done this stuff a ton of times for big clients, the process was physically affecting me more than anything I’d ever experienced,” Zajfen said. “I thought I was going to die.”

The review committee reacts to neighbors’ concerns, and there were plenty: the home’s size, its openness, its lighting, the large amount of glass.

After half a dozen trips to the board, Zajfen finally got the city’s blessing. He started construction in 2010 and recently completed the house. It displays some of the compromises necessary to get approval, including a lower profile and a discordant brown stucco entryway on the top floor that does indeed look almost “rustic.”

But his dream has been realized, somehow. Visiting the house can be nothing short of magical.

Stepping down a series of concrete slabs, the four-level home is supported by caissons dug as deep as 60 feet, with tied-back retaining walls to keep the hill in place. The house is mounted on a steel frame and clad with Vetter Stone limestone, a rich, golden rock from Minnesota. And in front: lots and lots of glass.

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