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San Diego by Design

Sailing Home


WHAT HAPPENS WHEN a major architect—the builder of the soaring residential tower Cortez Blu and eclectic mixed-use spaces like Little Italy’s Doma Lofts and Towns—turns his attention to a home for his family?

The answer is a surprisingly straightforward but modern design integrating green principles. The house is energetic, reflecting and capturing light at the same time. Somehow, it seems ready to set sail for the bay below its uphill lot.

“I wanted it to be a simple house,” says Tony Cutri, a co-founder and principal architect in Martinez + Cutri, where he heads the housing and urban design divisions. “We wouldn’t spend money on complications; we would spend money finishing it with quality materials.”

Six years ago, Cutri and his wife, Alison—a dancer and dance teacher—were living in a house Tony had built in Normal Heights. “The house overlooked Mission Valley,” he says. “It was modest, with modern roof shapes that made it look kind of like a gypsy wagon.”

Big decks provided the only useful outdoor spaces. A few years after the Cutris’ son, Gabriel, was born, Tony installed Plexiglas against the decks’ cable railings. As soon as Tony had finished babyproofing, little Gabe pulled a chair to the edge, climbed up and looked over.

Well,” said Alison, “we’re going to need a new house.”

The family couldn’t find one with a yard they liked, so Tony decided to build again. The site was key. After a long search, he found it—a steeply sloped lot on Hawk Street in a section of Mission Hills secluded by canyons. It faces directly west, with panoramic views of the bay and downtown.

In the mid-’50s, many Italian families moved up to these hills from Little Italy. Tony grew up on this very street, playing at the Castagnolas’ place with his best buddy, Vito.

“I have wonderful memories of being at my friend’s house,” he says. “His father was a tuna fishermen. We would watch for the tuna boats coming into the harbor. We’d all hop in the station wagon and meet them at the docks.”

The architecture and materials of the house pay tribute to the old days. The home has a nautical feel, with balconies that reach toward the bay like the prow of a ship.

The house is basically four 20-by-20-foot square stacks. There is formality, however, hidden in its uncomplicated theme.

“Folded over that,” Cutri says, “was this whole concept of using very industrial, marine-like materials.” The cables are stainless steel, and the stair material, the railing for the stairs and balcony, the balcony decking material and the exposed beams that support the balcony decks are made of galvanized steel, a no-maintenance material rarely seen in residential design.

The Portland cement stucco walls beautifully absorb the colors of the setting sun. Cutri chose the neutral material to mimic the hue of concrete. “The color is kind of a green-gray,” he says. “I used a spray-on dash finish with a lot of texture and richness rather than a troweled-on finish. That usually has patterns I wanted to avoid.”

At night, patio lights artfully covered with bent perforated steel provide warm, incandescent light.

THE HOUSE WAS BUILT TO TAKE ADVANTAGE of the views, but Cutri is often questioned about window placement: “People are always asking, ‘How come you didn’t put all kinds of windows in the southwest?’

“When you’re living in a house,” he says, “you like these little surprise views; you like them framed. You like to see the inside of your house, so the corners of the house and the interior supports become niches—places for art and lighting.

Throughout the interior, the floors are either clear maple or Chinese slate flecked with gold. Cutri designed the kitchen cabinets using the same clear maple as the floors. For the kitchen countertops and island, he chose limestone slabs from Florentine Company.

“It’s more delicate than marble, but so much warmer,” he says. “You just have to get your 9- year-old not to pour lemonade on it. It’s pretty good with wine!”

The kitchen island is oversized, affording plenty of room for architect Cutri to lay out plans, and for Alison’s and Gabriel’s projects. The large multipurpose space opens into the backyard. The dining room table is built on casters so Alison can move it to choreograph dance. In here, the maple floors are sprung, so it gives and is easier on the feet and ankles.

Glass sconces in the walls and the snake lights over the kitchen island were designed by the late Michael Dunsford, a friend and a trendsetter who used to have a modern lighting and furniture store downtown called Inside.

Cutri used dimmers, wall sconces and cable lighting—lots of low-voltage lighting with quartz bulbs—to make the house glitter at night. “Lighting is something people don’t think about enough when they’re designing a house,” he says.

During the day, though, it’s bright and airy. Cutri took pains to shelter the rooms from western exposure. He pulled the windows back from the walls and designed the deck out of galvanized- steel bridge grading so it would act as a reflective shield.

Cutri used to have an energy-control firm in Berkeley. While he was there, he designed some of the first energy-efficient state office buildings for then-Governor Jerry Brown in the early ’80s, years before green design took hold. “We reduced energy consumption by 70 percent,” he says.

Applying the same principles to his home was second nature. The house functions as a passive solar house. Cutri put in Low-E double-glaze windows and a superefficient heat-pump system. During the day, the slate floors collect heat. “Our worst energy bills are $140 month; [usually] they’re about $40, most of which is for electricity,” he says.

An architect, naturally, is never without a new project. Tony says the next phase will be the backyard —the Italian way. He has big plans for a pool and, of course, a pizza oven.

the living room LIVING ROOM: Light pours into the living room from the street front and two extra-tall commercial windows from Fleetwood Windows & Doors in Corona. A three-sided Marco wood-burning fireplace anchors the space leading to the kitchen and provides warmth to both rooms.
the house exterior HOME: Poised on a hill, the Cutris’ home glows at sunset. The stucco walls turn a shimmering pink as patio lights twinkle behind perforatedsteel covers.
the bedroom

MASTER BEDROOM: Windows in the master bedroom take full advantage of a west-facing bay view, while their pulled-back design and the sun-reflective decking offset the heat.

the dining room DINING ROOM: A dining-room niche displays a painting of Tuscany by Sharon Cutri. The modern table and chairs——reupholstered in a Matisse print——are late-’50s antiques. Tech Lighting cable lights with blue Murano glass shades are from Highlights Lighting, San Diego.
the kitchen KITCHEN: The kitchen, opposite, has a large island that doubles as a workspace. The clearmaple cabinetry’s warm tones complement the counter material, Lagos Azul honed limestone imported from Brazil by Florentine Company, San Diego; the backsplash is of the same stone in 18-inch-square tiles.
the Cutri family at home FAMILY: Tony and Alison Cutri, with 9-year-old Gabriel, were excited to build on the very street where Tony played in the ’50s.
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