Waterfront Living #1 – Urban SPA


Written By: Maresa Giovannini

Imaging awakening to the sound of crashing waves and the unmistakable scent of the pacific ocean lingering at your bedroom window as warm sunlight floods your room.

In the first minutes of morning consciousness it might be difficult to discern whether the experience was a sleep-induced desire or the reality of life on the Southern California shoreline. But with the family dogs eagerly awaiting their seaside emancipation, you step outside for a stroll and are elated to realize that this is, indeed a beautiful reality.

This was the life that homeowners Seth and Monica Epstein were searching for, but when they purchased their Malibu, California house in 2001, it was not as exceptional as the dreams they created for themselves.

The couple purchased the 2,900-square-foot beachfront home primarily for its bones and intended to incorporate their own design influence on the house; however, they did not anticipate the amount of work it needed. In addition to the water damage, the homeowners were alarmed by the house’s unusually strong shake with the surf. So they opened up the walls, only to discover significant structural inadequacies.

With the introduction of a complete remodel, Seth brought on Shubin+Donaldson Architects, of Culvar, California, with whom he had collaborated previously on several industrial spaces. Led by Russell Shubin, the project also included his partner, Robin Donaldson, and interior design consultant Audrey Alberts. Together, they turned this unexpectedly major project into an opportunity to make better structural and design decisions for the beachfront home.

With a background in graphic design, Seth came to the drafting table with a multitude of ideas and worked with the team to establish a urban-spa theme. The nine-month project began with a complete gutting of the house, preserving only the dining room and courtyard, which already echoed the fluid language they desired. Although the building was gutted, the footprint of the building did not change dramatically. The lot did not allow for expansion, and although they opened the rooms, it was only in an attempt to “clarify and simplify.”

The team’s overall goal was to create a relaxing escape from city life. By using a palette of limestone floors and counters, dark woods, white walls, and fire-etched glass to mimic the elements of air, light, and water, they created a visually seamless transition between the indoors and outdoors.

For the urban influence, Seth drew from commercial and hotel designs on the opposite coast and his time spent in New York City. The NYC works of British architect John Pawson and French designer Christian Liaigre provided Seth’s primary material and design inspiration.

Applied to either coast, a meditative getaway rarely highlights spaces meant for productivity, so the team emphasized the upstairs master suite. Spanning a generous part of the second floor, the master suite includes the bedroom, closet office, bath, walk-in closet, and outdoor sleeping porch. The loft-like openness encourages the continual flow of one space into another, but Shubin explains that each room was designed with an individual “intentional experience.”

The Epsteins’ intentions were unlike those of most homeowners. Instead of creating a secluded personal retreat, they wanted a social atmosphere where their friends could also experience high-class coastal relaxation. The master bath classically services as the center of the spa experience, with floating furniture-like fixtures accentuated by exclusive wenge wood.

Although intentionally reminiscent of a Turkish bath for social interaction and relaxation, privacy is still an option. Frosted glass surrounds the shower and toilet, and three moving floor-to-ceiling glass panels can enclose the entire room. The triple track allows the panels to slide independently so the room can be partially or entirely closed to the master bedroom. Alternatively, lounging in the tub with the panels open provides a connection to the master sleeping porch for socializing and exposure to the ocean.

The sleeping porch expands the communal area for the master suite and creates an outdoor spa space. Continuing to blur the visual understanding of enclosed surrounding, they affixed rips from sail cloth material for shade and earthy teak chaises to provide tasteful beach seating.

The radiance of the beach was an essential design element. In retrospect, however, the Epsteins learned that sometimes sun should be absorbed in moderation. Limestone surfaces magnify the light, and without blackout curtains, sleeping can be problematic. Seth had anticipated a sunshine surplus, and as a conscious remedy he and Shubin created a mini media room to eliminate the brightness and create a burrowing space for lethargic relaxation.

With the exception of the media room, the entire house is a continuous flow of spaces and unusual extensions. And for the most part, the Epsteins keep their home wide open.

Whether at a relaxing retreat for Monica and her girlfriends on the sleeping porch or the couple’s traditional Sunday night dinner with friends, the Epsteins wanted to share their carefree beach life.