Thoroughly Modern Malibu

Dreaming of dramatic views, one adventurous couple built an eco-savvy home that makes a bold statement high above the Pacific.
Produced by James H. Schwartz, text by Jeff Book

The wild west lives on in Malibu―and not just as a metaphor for pushy paparazzi or the traffic hurtling down Pacific Coast Highway. Behind the famous beaches rise the Santa Monica Mountains, a jumble of rugged canyons and cliffs. Houses here cling to rock outcrops and slopes dotted with fragrant (and flammable) chaparral. To live in them requires more than a little frontier spirit.

But the home of Georgia Goldfarb and Walter Zelman is no rustic cabin. Perched on a ridge high above the ocean, the house consists of “simple forms and lots of windows, so every room has great views,” says architect Stephen Kanner. The house’s structure should be admired for its smart design as much as its good looks, though. “We wanted to make a house that’s eco-friendly and still practical,” Walter says.

The site came with breathtaking vistas―and exposure to wind-driven fires that regularly reduce houses to cinders here. But with limited overhangs, metal windows, stucco walls, and fire-rated roof cladding, “this house is inherently fire-resistant,” Stephen says.

Inspired by a color he’d seen in Ghana, West Africa, Stephen gave the house a deep terra-cotta hue that imitates the radiance of a ruddy sunset. Commercial-grade, energy-efficient windows and sliding-glass doors have minimal aluminum frames, enhancing the connection to the outdoors. Built-in cabinetry and unobtrusive furnishings such as Barcelona chairs and glass-top tables add to the sense of free-flowing space. The couple chose a blue-vein quartzite for kitchen counters and the fireplace surround because it reminded them of the ocean and sky.

Glass walls in the living room and master bedroom embrace sea views and work with concrete floors in the downstairs living area to trap heat from the sun, warming the house when nighttime temperatures drop. Abundant windows capture breezes to cool the house with cross-ventilation. The roof supports photovoltaic panels and a solar thermal water-heating system.

With their eco-friendly structure and frequent wildlife sightings (they often spot hawks, owls, coyotes, and even the occasional bobcat), Walter and Georgia say they feel close to nature. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and the moon is coming through the skylight over the bed, and it’s like all the lights are on,” Walter says.

Such beautiful surroundings, combined with the house’s clean lines and sleek furnishings, set the stage for entertaining. “And this time of year,” Georgia says, “the modern style becomes a sort of blank canvas for holiday decorations.” Last year, the couple hosted a dinner party with about 30 people seated in the living room. Dinner, of course, was served during a spectacular sunset.