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  • Catherine Holliss

UNDER CONSTRUCTION: When The Dream is In the Making

Two of our favorite projects, albeit wildly different, are well into construction. There is so much romance in design, and a very different, equally magnificent romance when construction begins.

The story of any project starts with the initial bloom of creation, during which the client and architect can dream up their perfect space. Gradually, it becomes more real as engineers get involved, the details get nailed down, drawings get created and the building department gives their stamp of approval.

Once the contractor is on site, the next phase begins. Dreams become reality. It is genuinely exciting. This is the stage where hammers and nails, grading equipment, and power tools are as mighty as the pen.

What other people might call problems, we call input. That’s not just playing a word game. Input from the field can strengthen the original design ideas, or even become a new design element.

Sometimes, this comes about because of a change requested by the client. Once the foundation of a house is laid, it might become clear that the pool needs to move. Once a glass wall is in place, it might become clear that the vinyl baseboard of the interior wall is going to show too much. From details great to small, the construction process is more fluid than you might imagine. The dream is in the making and it always needs a tweak.

This process is inspiring, the journey that every architect anticipates with relish.

Our project in Malibu, PLAYHOUSE came about in an appropriately playful manner. The owner was hoping to fit a full-size tennis court alongside his house. It was tricky to make this work so architect Whitney Sander proposed putting the house under the court. An idea was born.

In another twist of fate, the construction site burned in the recent Malibu fires. This is one of the properties on the beach side of Pacific Coast Highway that was affected when the fire leaped the otherwise natural firebreak created by the road. The construction trailer burned and some of the plywood put in place for the board-form concrete was also damaged. But the house's concrete walls were unscathed by the flames. Luckily, no one was hurt and construction was able to resume. Others in Malibu were not so lucky and our hearts go out to them.


As you might imagine, the fire has redoubled all conversations about fire-resistant materials. The fence around the court evolved through three steps. First metal, then a fire-resistant wood—Red Balau, which came back with a bid that was much too high—and, finally, concrete. This is one of those pivotal moments that can completely change the look of a project. Luckily the design team and the client are all excited about this decision. Beautifully cast concrete is the basic language for the entire project and this will, we hope, make the tennis court feel like it is an integral part of the house.


This week, the board form is being built to create the major design move of the great room: a staircase that wraps around a cast-in-place concrete wall. Stairs, at Sander Architects are a major obsession, as we talk about in this post, so it is a delight to see our design taking form, literally and metaphorically.

The big design move for this project, at the rendering stage, was to offset a line of glass-front offices with a central core wrapped in a curving glass wall. This is bold. It takes a bold client to see the benefit to shifting away from the paradigm of rectangles for office spaces. ARCONIC, the client, designs fastening systems for aerospace and other industries. Their engineers are creative thinkers and they made that leap look easy. This week, the curving glass walls started to go in, and it is possible to see those first design dreams making the transition into reality.

For fun, here is an image of the old office space set next to the new:

It is clear that this company intends to move their thinking towards the future of their business—and it is equally clear (as glass) that their workspace will reflect that intention. The dream of creating a world-class leader in engineering is in the making.

Watching the first renderings become reality is every designer’s dream and we are pleased to share part of that journey with you.


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