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The Controversial Cabin

When one of the Bay Area’s most renowned architects faces off with the California Coastal Commission, a simple renovation quickly gets complicated.


Curly’s Cove was formerly a crumbling fishing shack.

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The two-bedroom cabin makes for a low-key getaway.

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Architect Olle Lundberg.

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Bathroom light fixtures by Sklo.

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A cantilevered foundation keeps the house out of the bay.

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Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories about our relationship with the natural world, which San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the May 2017 Great Outdoors Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

“We thought buying
and renovating a little vacation rental on the water would be more interesting than just sticking our money in the stock market,” says San Francisco–based architect Olle Lundberg. “Maybe not as smart, but definitely more interesting.”

“Interesting” would seem to be a prerequisite for any Lundberg endeavor. He’s one of the Bay Area’s most celebrated architects, his list of projects ranging from Twitter’s Market Street headquarters and Virgin’s sleek SFO terminals to Muni’s iconic “red wave” bus shelters and the redesign of a hulking ferryboat called the Maritol that he had delivered from Iceland (via the Panama Canal) to serve as a floating home for himself and his wife, Mary Breuer. In the grand scheme of things, the couple’s rehab of a modest 1930s fishing cabin along Bodega Bay seemed quaint by comparison.

“But the challenge with anything right on the coast is that you will have to deal with the California Coastal Commission,” Lundberg explains in a tone that hints at the extended drama that followed. “I am quite honestly a big fan of the commission. I think what they have done for California has been extraordinary—it’s the reason the West Coast doesn’t look like the East Coast, where every piece of beachfront is a giant housing development. I’m kind of on their side, but in this case we were in slightly adversarial positions.”

Basically, the Coastal Commission is one of the Pacific’s preeminent protectors. It is tasked with, among other things, enforcing a total ban on development (a broadly defined term that includes demolition) on coastal wetlands. It also gets to decide where the wetlands begin and end—a watery line that ebbs and flows constantly.

With their cabin,
Lundberg and Breuer unintentionally stumbled into many of these regulatory problem areas. They were the proud new owners of a crumbling, uninhabitable fishing shack just steps from the Bodega Bay waterline that was aggressively sliding off its timber foundation and infested with “every wood-eating bug known to man,” Lundberg says. “It wasn’t condemned, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been.” But the architect put his full professional skill set, which includes decades of experience in sustainable and ecologically sensitive design, behind the project and thought he had come up with a viable way forward.

“The existing building was just on the edge of the water, but not in the water,” Lundberg says. “We researched it and found the jurisdiction of the Coastal Commission did not include the structure, so we wouldn’t have to deal with them.” After doing the Sonoma County–required biological and archaeological surveys, Lundberg went forward with a design plan that gave the bay a wide berth: He would take the building down to the studs, move the whole thing back 10 feet, and use an innovative cantilevered foundation to avoid pouring concrete anywhere near the water. The county permitting board seemed satisfied and sent out notifications of the potential upcoming construction to the neighbors and to…the Coastal Commission.

“The Coastal Commission came back and said they wanted to rethink the lines of jurisdiction on our property. And they wanted me to pay them to do it!” says Lundberg, whose unflappably jolly demeanor allows him to retell the story like a seasoned sportscaster who can’t help but savor the drama, especially since he’s narrating a replay and already knows the outcome.

“So I pay them money,” Lundberg says, “they redraw the lines of jurisdiction to include the house, and then they say, ‘So I’m afraid everything you’ve done now you have to do over, because now we issue the permit, not the county.’” (He adds that his immediate recourse was “two nights of heavy drinking.”) The only bright spot? “That I didn’t have to deliver this news to a client. I just had to tell my wife.”

Breuer, who founded
and runs a 29-year-old executive search firm, thought they were financially doomed, but Lundberg remained optimistic. “I told her, ‘We very well could lose all our money, but we aren’t there quite yet,’” he chuckles. “I thought we could work out a win-win solution.” Fourteen months and countless negotiations later, they had: Much of Lundberg’s original design remained, though the house was raised even higher to account for the next 75 years of climate change and sea level rise (which actually afforded the couple a better bay view). “The [CCC] voted on it and unanimously let me go ahead.”

The construction process was fairly painless in comparison. The structure was mostly disassembled, tented and fumigated, then rebuilt 10 feet farther back with more robust materials and minimal changes to the 1,150-square-foot footprint or massing. But unlike the original, “which essentially kept out nothing,” the new cabin was sealed with high-efficiency spray-in insulation, and solar panels were installed on the roof, making it a net-zero building: The two-bedroom, one-bath home currently produces more electricity than it consumes. The bay-facing gable was given a floor-to-ceiling glass wall; the interiors were left open and airy, with a great room that includes the kitchen and living and dining rooms and opens onto the deck that overlooks the bay.

They salvaged what little they could, such as sheets of multicolored beadboard that had previously lined the walls and drop ceilings. “Someone in the ’60s had apparently gotten crazy with the paint,” Lundberg says. He painted the boards a crisp white and installed them horizontally on the walls, up to the new cathedral ceilings. As a whole, the interiors are modern, understated, and above all durable. Lundberg and Breuer want guests to feel comfortable trekking from outside to inside, muddy boots and all. The custom sofa, designed by B&B, is upholstered in woven vinyl, so wet kayaking gear is no match for it. Even decorative details such as the glass light fixtures may look delicate but are nearly indestructible. “They are actually really heavy—they are from a company called Sklo in Healdsburg, and it’s all hand-manipulated glass made in the Czech Republic,” Lundberg says. Even the cabin’s moniker, Curly’s Cove, is a tribute to the wet and muddy—in this case, a pooch. “When we first came here with our dogs, our black Lab Curly ran straight out into the water, like, ‘Yes, this is where I belong.’”

According to Lundberg, the final result proved worth all the regulatory headaches. “It wasn’t an easy process, but it ended up being a good example of how to work together to protect what is important.”


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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