This beach house design will have you catching waves (literally)

Imagine the sound of surf crashing just outside your bedroom window, in a home where the windows and the very lines of the house itself echo the curves of the waves below. That’s the Wave House, an iconic Santa Barbara home built on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean by noted architect Michael Carmichael in the early 1970s. Recently it was updated by its new owner, who fell instantly in love with the whimsical, thoughtful design.

Photos by Cavan Hadley.

The home looked to be in original condition, says builder Mitch Williams, who has worked with the client on several other properties. “There was no obvious remodeling, no work that had been done that we could see,” he says. “But the windows leaked, the roof leaked, there was no central heat or air conditioning. Everything was aged.”

The main house included two bedrooms; a living, dining and kitchen area, and a bathroom. The owner wanted three bedrooms in the main house. The original master suite had a spiral staircase that ran from a sitting area on the main floor to the bedroom above. The new design converted the sitting area into another bedroom and created a new main staircase from the front hallway to the second floor.

“There are very few straight lines and no true arches,” Williams says. “Everything is elliptical. Everything is free-form.” The wave-shaped windows in the original home were much smaller. Williams and his crew had to strip the house and use framing hardware and shear paneling to bring the structural integrity of the building up to current code.

“We literally freehand-drew new radiuses following the same design but opening and widening and heightening the windows in almost every area,” he says. “We paid attention to where eye level would be when you walked in the front door, and what we wanted to capture in the view plane.”

The front door is original to the building, including the hardware. The new owner loves to garden and is “very knowledgeable” about landscape design and plants, Williams says, and is doing much of the landscape work herself.

New flooring throughout the main floor is fossilized limestone from Greece. “One out of every 10 tiles will have a seahorse fossil, or the fossil of a sea snail embedded in the tile,” Williams says.

The fireplace is also original to the house. “We didn’t do any work on it other than painting,” Williams says. “It was really important to keep that element.”

All the interior wood was bleached and cleaned and refinished with “a very soft and muted” finish that allows the natural wood grain to come through.

When the new owner bought the house, all the lighting came from floor lamps connected to wall outlets. Williams redid all the electrical components, addressing “big challenges” in providing adequate lighting in the kitchen and living areas.

Cable lighting over the kitchen was one solution, and Williams added wall sconces and some floor plugs so the homeowner could use lamps without cords exposed across the floor.

The new owner originally wanted to update the kitchen with new countertops and cabinets but eventually decided against it. “We went back and forth several times and decided that’s where we would side with a purist approach,” Williams says. “It adds that certain level of funk.”

New custom tiles replaced those that were missing or broken in the counters, and a new wood edge provided a clean, fresh look. A slat board front to match the existing cabinets covers the fridge. All the woodwork in the kitchen is oak slat board.

High ceilings dominate most spaces of the house except for the front hallway, which was originally only 30 inches wide. Williams and his crew expanded it by 8 inches.

The beams, made of Douglas fir, are continuous and run through the ceiling and out into what is now the stair landing upstairs. A laundry room and a full bathroom lie behind the curved wall to the left.

A new main staircase leads to the second floor, where wall-to-wall carpeting reduces sound.

The master bedroom has views south and west overlooking the Pacific. The tail of the wave on the original window to the left was just a foot high; Williams expanded it to bring in more southern light and views.

When Williams and the owner first walked through the house, they puzzled over the jalousie (louvered) windows in most of the rooms. “We thought, ‘Those are really funky. Why would someone put those in?’”

Williams suggested the owner spend a few weekends living in the house before the redesign began. Afterward, he says, the owner called him and said, “The jalousie windows are the coolest thing in the house! If you leave them open, you can hear the ocean all night long.’”

The sound was the good part, but the original louvered windows were all glass, and beamed down harsh light when open. So Williams used painted glass that would block light when closed but could be opened to let in the sound of the waves when wanted.

The house’s design leaves few options for functional windows that open. The redesign created one window in every bedroom that opens like a casement window. The window next to the wall at the head of the bed is the only operable window in this room. It allows breezes in and also provides the emergency egress required to meet construction codes.

Onyx countertops and shower walls in the master bathroom echo the waves of the house and the ocean beyond. “We placed the slabs to follow the curves of the glass and reiterate the waves,” Williams says. Radiant heat keeps the floors warm in all the bathrooms in the house and tower.

A first-floor bedroom directly below the master used to be the sitting area for the two-story master suite, connected to the room upstairs by a small spiral staircase. The bedroom lies adjacent to the deck, overlooking the ocean.

The first-floor bathroom has a door that opens from the shower onto the deck, to provide easy access when returning from the beach. The finishes are marble.

The old deck had substantial dry rot. Williams ripped it out and installed a new deck of Brazilian ipe wood.

The guest tower is just undergoing a final redo. The staircase will be replaced with a single stringer staircase. The tower is also undergoing re-siding, and an interior remodel that turned a main-floor laundry room into a bedroom and bath. The second and third floors each have a bedroom and bath.

The entire house was re-sided with new cedar shingles and re-roofed. Doors built into the sides of the house provide access to the living area, bedroom and bath. The porthole was taken from another spot in the house and put into the new door leading directly into the first-floor shower.

The 30-foot-tall guest tower includes an observation deck. The cantilevered deck edge eliminated the need for a handrail. LED lighting underneath the cantilever puts a soft glow at night on the landscaping surrounding the deck.

A private staircase leads down to the beach 60 feet below. The limited-access beach lies just north of Refugio State Beach.

The house is “one of the most difficult projects we’ve ever worked on,” Williams says. “The goal was to modernize the house but provide a much higher level of quality and integrity to the construction. It was really important to the owner and ourselves that we preserve the integrity of the design. We wanted to enhance it, but we took almost a purist approach.”