Photographed by Amy Barnard
On November 13, 2008, the infamous Tea Fire swept down the tinder-dry slopes of Montecito, eventually destroying 210 homes in Montecito and Santa Barbara. One of those structures, on a steep hillside above Mountain Drive close to the fire’s origin, belonged to Sean and Angela Stevens. Sean, a building contractor, spent more than a decade crafting the home with his own hands. The Stevens family lost the house and nearly all of their belongings in a matter of minutes.
While devastating, the fire provided the family with a chance to make refreshing lemonade from parched lemons. “After the Tea Fire, we had an opportunity to build a new house higher up the slope, above the original site, so we could have unobstructed views,” Sean says.
They hired local architect Dustin Stephens—who co-owns Mobile Office Architects with partner Alan Ho—to design an energy-efficient fire-resistant home on the steep slope. Stephens, who holds a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard University, rose to the challenge. The result: a stunning structure on two orientations, or terraces, that converge in a central living area and kitchen. Spectacular panoramic views of the ocean, islands and city of Santa Barbara unfold from the south-facing side, while the north side affords mountain and meadow vistas.
“The central living space is at the heart of where the two orientations come together—a pavilion-type space that fully opens at the front and back, blurring the boundaries of what is interior and exterior space,” explains Stephens. Residents and guests enter through a shaded courtyard with a koi pond and reach the front door via a 2×2-foot steel square that appears to float over the water. (The square, salvaged after the fire, was the first step in a stairway that led up to the Stevens’s original front door.)
Stephens adds, “A carefully considered entry sequence is a common theme in much of my work—when the site features a dramatic view, I like to disengage the participant from that view, then re-introduce the view at the center of the project.”
This central pavilion is Sean’s favorite area of the home. “I can open it up different ways just by opening and closing different doors and windows—I can shut the windows overlooking the ocean and open the door to the koi pond, and go completely the other way.”
Angela, a retired nurse, says she most enjoys the spaciousness and the views. “My favorite is out the back, looking at the chaparral and mountains,” she says. “I love the materials and the lines, every bit of it. I also love my koi pond.” She also appreciates her workspaces, at a desk in the central living area and in an art studio on the lower level, where she now devotes much of her time to her lifelong passion for artistic pursuits. Her charcoal sketches and paintings adorn spaces throughout the home.
Although Sean built his original home by himself, work and time constraints required finding extra help for the rebuild. Luckily, Stephens, who had construction experience, was willing and able. “I built substantial portions of the project myself and managed construction all the way through, which is something I don’t always get to do,” he says. “For me, that was a pretty unique experience—to be intimately involved with both design and construction.”
Both Sean and Angela greatly appreciated the opportunity to work so closely with the architect and are thrilled with the end result. Says Angela, “It’s a really beautiful home, it’s just right for us.”
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Originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.