Living on the Edge

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THE PRICE WAS RIGHT IN 1995 when Mike Fitzsimons and Sheila Roman bought an 80-year-old, Spanish Revival fixer-upper for its cozy upper North Park neighborhood and canyon-edge location.

When they decided to remodel, they learned that the land beneath their small stucco house had shifted, which explained why huge wall cracks were appearing regularly in every room. Soil tests confirmed that the crumbling cliffside dirt beneath the old foundation was totally unstable.

Faced with the expense of having to remove hundreds of cubic yards of on-site dirt to find solid ground to anchor new foundations, Mike and Sheila decided to construct a new house instead of remodel the old one.  

Sheila was delighted that she would get her wish for more closet/storage space and windows — lots of windows. Mike, a custom-home construction manager, knew that excavating so much soil meant the design could include an underground garage and wood workshop space that he coveted.

When they began in 2008, Sheila was nearing retirement as a financial administrator with the University of California, San Diego, and she was eager to have a home with “light, light and more light.”

They decided that, with Mike’s expertise as a licensed general contractor and Sheila’s availability and eagerness, they could do most of the work themselves.

Mike put together a design and construction team fairly quickly. At the time, he was the project manager on a contemporary, sea-bluff estate along La Jolla Farms Road. (That estate graced the July 2011 cover of San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles.) The lead architect on that project, Jon Dominy of DomusStudio Architecture, was Mike’s first choice to design his and Sheila’s residence. 

Jon was in the middle of building his own home. But after listening to Mike and Sheila’s ideas, the young architect came on board. “It was a chance to build something contemporary in a great neighborhood that was modest in price while still stylish,” he says.

Mike adds, “I loved the style of the homes (seven and counting) that I have worked on with Jon and his father, DomusStudio founder Lew Dominy. There were a lot of elements in the La Jolla Farms project that we liked, except we didn’t have millions to spend.”

Working closely with Jon, Mike and Sheila made another key decision. Instead of recreating another Spanish Revival, they opted for a 3,000-square-foot contemporary design with three levels.

Interior designer Mark Stary was brought in during the framing stage of the project and tasked with coordinating décor and layout, as well as selecting tile, lighting, interior and exterior colors, furniture and accessories.  

“For the color palette, I was inspired by the canyon beyond the back yard, which had so many beautiful hues among the rocks and vegetation,” he says. He also was guided by the need to make this home fit comfortably in a neighborhood mix of older bungalows and modern homes and apartments. “The careful selection of exterior colors and finishes helped to pull that off,” Mark says.

When the project was finally completed 13 months later, it included three bedrooms, three bathrooms and a loft with a commanding view of Mission Valley — a vista Mike and Sheila previously lacked.

Sheila’s desire for plenty of light and lots of windows was achieved. The bedroom spaces are stacked on the west side of the house — shading the east side, two-story great room from the afternoon sun. The great room includes a myriad of windows, an open kitchen and dining room.

Mike wanted a basement-entry garage to minimize the visual impact of a garage door on the front elevation of the house. He also wanted to minimize the noise. The Wayne-Dalton garage door, Mike says, “was a huge expense, but worth the money because its opening and closing mechanism is extremely quiet. I hate garage doors that you can hear groaning down the block.”  

Having two laundry areas (one upstairs off the master suite and the other in the garage) was a utilitarian decision. At the end of a day spent on a construction site, Mike can leave soiled work clothes downstairs, while the upstairs laundry room takes care of the rest of the couple’s clothes-washing needs.

Although Mike has a career’s worth of woodworking and cabinetmaking experience, as well as strong relationships with cabinetmakers, he and Sheila decided to purchase their cabinetry at IKEA.  

“Prior to and during my build-ing career, I have owned two cabinet shops,” Mike says. “In my opinion, if installed properly, the cabinetry from IKEA is on a level of quality equal to anything from a custom shop or the readymade modular cabinets available from dealers.” 

By acting as his own general contractor, Mike was able to make money-saving decisions on the spot and focus on overall quality workmanship. “I’m especially proud of how different elements — slate, stucco, wood, steel framing and glass — meet in exacting detail,” he says.

Woods he used include hem-lock for the ceiling, bamboo for flooring and Parallam for the stairs. “I sanded and filled it and applied a clear urethane floor finish,” Mike says of the latter. “It is a composite material that is used for posts and beams in framing.”

Mike and Sheila took great pains to build with an environ-mentally friendly mindset. All of the windows, doors, cabinets, plumbing fixtures, lumber and other materials removed during demolition were taken to Mexico to be reused in construction projects there. Copper plumbing, wire and concrete were recycled locally. And all of the excavated soil was used as fill on a nearby construction site.

“All in all, this is a very calm and peaceful home with understated elements that add up to a very livable, welcoming atmosphere,” Sheila says. “It works just fine for two persons or 30. I can’t wait to tackle another big decision, and that’s to redo the back garden so that it can finally live up to the comfort and style of our new home.”

By Thomas Shess Photography by Brady Architectural Photography

Categories: Home Design