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Dome Sweet Home


A Crest remodel goes from a kit home to a model of contemporary cool

HOUSE DOESN’T SING OR DANCE, accuse or forgive, laugh or cry—yet it can inspire greatness in those who live within its walls. Houses have roofs and floors; homes have souls. That bedrock anchors the human spirit.

The home of Karen and Jeff Sugg in Crest has a big soul.

In October 2003, the devastating Crest fire threatened their beloved dome home. Jeff, with dogged pioneer spirit, fought for his house with the same hands that had built it. Fortunately, the couple were installing new landscaping and had cleared away the surrounding brush the week before the fire crept to their front door. Jeff, who never considered abandoning the house, used garden hoses and shovels of dirt to fend off the backfires that lingered after the main wall of flames roared by.

Jeff hand-built the original structure in 1989 from a geodesic-dome kit, on a little more than an acre in the East County foothill community of Crest. He liked the idea of a kit home because he would be free to innovate.

“He had never built so much as a toolshed,” says Karen, who married Jeff in 1992. “The dome allowed him total freedom to design the inside, because there are no interior load-bearing walls.”

During the early 1990s, Jeff and Karen never quite finished the dome home. The launch of a new business consumed their time—and the money needed to finish the upstairs bathroom. Like many start-ups, M.I.T. Drivetrain Specialists, which they run together, took years to become successful. The shop in El Cajon builds and customizes drive trains on high-performance and off-road vehicles.

A decade later, with a bit more time and cash, the Suggs began to think about remodeling. They needed more space, and tearing down the dome was not an option. Jeff and Karen share a love of minimalist design, and after seeing the work of Encinitas-based architect Guillermo Tomaszewski, they asked him to design their addition. It would bring the total square footage to 3,500.

Geodesic domes are based on interconnected triangular beams that, when linked together as hexagons, create a strong, self-bracing frame. “The form is a little difficult to work with architecturally,” Tomaszewski says, “but instead of trying to add another dome or curved element, we chose to contrast it with a more contemporary scheme.”

The dome was sturdy enough to allow removal of a few interior walls, creating a great room on the lower floor with a new sunken living room. The architect credits the Suggs with the idea for the striking wood-wrapped beams and a contrasting sheet-metal ceiling in the living room. Karen insisted on trimless windows and doors for an ultra-mini-malist look. A gentle hillside allows the main house to keep its view sightlines while permitting a large garage below.

“There are still many remnants of the dome,” Tomaszewski says. “You see the triangles as you walk in the entry, and the master bedroom is pretty much left intact—so you feel the dome, but it doesn’t dominate.”

Because Karen and Jeff worked so hard on the project themselves, they transferred that ethic to everyone involved— from the woodworkers to the backhoe operators, the architect says.

In 2000, as the major remodeling began, Karen suffered a brain aneurysm. The project was put on hold while she recovered.

A year later, the Suggs repaid for their permits and began anew. In addition to contributing to the design concept, Karen worked side-by-side with her husband on many of the labor-intensive tasks, from drywall installation to replacing flooring. She then assumed the role of interior designer.

Tested by adversity, Jeff and Karen consider their labor of love a triumph. Asked what their home means to them, now that it’s finally finished, Jeff says, “Our home is a creation between Karen and me and our partnership in life. When visitors see the house for the first time, they see something unexpected. Some get it, and others don’t. I like that.”

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