House of Sand and Fog

by Theresa Gonzalez | San Francisco Magazine | Photography: Joe Fletcher

Architect Malcolm Davis revives a Pacifica beach cottage while preserving its coastal charms.

An early 20th-century gable-roofed house one block from Pacifica’s fishing pier was sorely in need of an owner’s love when Kevin Hale, then a single UX designer-turned-investor, raised his hand. “I’ve always wanted a house that looked like a house, like one a kid would draw,” says Hale, a Florida native and devoted surfer who enlisted Malcolm Davis of Malcolm Davis Architects to help turn the rugged beach shack into an elevated weekend escape inspired by the homes along Iceland’s fishing villages that Hale had photographed.

“We had this house-and-barn concept,” says Davis of a plan that called for the barn structure to serve as Hale’s studio workspace, a place to meet with clients; and the home, though barely inhabitable at the time, to remain mostly intact.

“When we’re working from something existing, I generally try to play up its strengths,” says Davis. That meant removing the dropped flat ceiling to expose the sloped framing and gently refinishing the distressed Douglas fir floors, maintaining a patch here and there. “I didn’t want them to look too precious,” he adds, “so you could imagine having a dog and not freaking out that he was going to scratch the floors or a kid could walk in with sandy feet.”

Then came the light. Davis added a two-story bay window to the dining room and bath below, and skylights wherever he could—over the staircase, entryway, studio, roof deck and at the ridge above the dining area. “I wanted to make sure that we could get light in from all sides because Pacifica has a reputation of being foggy.” The result, says Hale, is that no corner of the house feels uninviting. “The way the light moves through the house is wonderful,” he says.

Respecting neighbor views, Davis and Hale agreed to excavate underneath the original single-level home to create a master bedroom and two bathrooms. “I’m not attracted to a house that feels or looks like a fortress,” says Hale. Two additional bedrooms below the roof deck link the two structures and serve as dual offices for Hale and the woman he met as the project was nearing completion, his now wife, Kathy Gerlach.

Last summer the couple turned in their San Francisco keys to settle permanently in Pacifica. “I was nervous about leaving the city,” says Gerlach, “but I love being able to walk on the beach every day.” Another perk of the 15-mile move: the sound of waves at night. “I’ve never lived in a home where you just open up the windows,” says Hale. “Definitely not in Florida, and in San Francisco, with all the city sounds and because of security, you’re kind of worried about leaving anything open. [This is] a house that breathes.”

The central roof deck offers sunset views and a passageway from the chic black house (protected against the Pacific via durable cement fiber siding) to the weathered-steel shed. “It’s just this simple rusty metal shed,” says Davis. “It speaks to the nonflashiness of the town.”

Modesty extends to the home’s apartment-size kitchen, which suits the couple—she a pastry school graduate and he a self-described fermentation nut—just fine. “A lot of people think it’s small, but it feels so efficient the way cabinets are laid out,” says Hale. “There’s enough space for everyone to have their own counter space, and it’s easy to chat from the living room given [its] all one open space,” adds Gerlach.

Hale’s collection of books, typewriters, birdhouses and quirky curiosities are contained inside the shed’s library of 16-by-16 open-frame cubbyholes, evocative of bare building bones. “I’ve always loved the way buildings looked when they’re framed—before you put on the Sheetrock,” says Davis. West-facing windows look out to the ocean and, come September, the famous Pacific Coast Fog Fest. “We’ve got a good view of the parade from the library,” says Hale. “It’s kind of a great location.”