Private Lives in Public Places

John and Jo Karambelas approached Redondo Beach architect Patrick Killen, AIA, of STUDIO 9 ONE 2 with an irresistible proposal.

John and Jo Karambelas approached Redondo Beach architect Patrick Killen, AIA, of STUDIO 9 ONE 2 with an irresistible proposal: build them a house on a tiny Manhattan Beach walk street lot that would afford peace and privacy for their young family without isolating them from the lively surrounding beach community.

“It was an old 50’s duplex,” says John Karambelas, recalling the house that originally stood on their lot. It was fairly typical of the neighborhood at its time, but it had fallen into a state of deferred repair. We saw an opportunity to create something special.”
Killen’s response, completed in 2009, is a unique and stunning design playfully dubbed “the tree house.”

“I didn’t want to make too many cheesy references to the Swiss Family Robinson,” says the architect, “but I wanted to give them a sense of being suspended high above the ground, among the treetops.”

It was exactly what they wanted. Jo Karambelas explains, “We told Patrick about the trip we had taken to Botswana. We really loved where we stayed there: it was up in the trees. We wanted that same feeling in our new home.”


The idea of a modern tree house became the guiding principal of Killen’s design. To create this special home, he defied the typical expectations of South Bay ocean view architecture. “In recent years, most of the new houses built along the walk streets have been stacks of glass boxes floating in the sky with a blank wall facing away from the water. The front yard, facing the walk street, becomes an after-thought: it’s part of the public access to the beach that they want to ignore.”

The Karambelas clan had other ideas. “They hired us because they had seen a number of our other projects, and they trusted us to create an exciting piece of architecture,” says Killen.

Rather than ignoring the home’s proximity to the public beach access and the community that uses it, Killen’s design warmly embraces both.

“To ignore the public access and the community around you defeats the purpose of living on a walk street,” he says.
He began by “re-energizing” the front yard. It is a small but essential space, an extension of the seating area indoors. “They use the front yard and the seating area to interact with the community,” says Killen.

The Karambelas house stands three stories tall at the top of a walk street hill, on a 30×90 lot adjacent to Live Oak Park. It is a typically small South Bay lot, but proximity to the park and its public green spaces gives it a unique sense of openness and space that Killen wanted to celebrate. Instead of facing a solid wall to the public park, the architect created decks and sliding glass doors, and a stairway leading directly to the park, with its tennis courts, soccer field and playground. “We wanted our kids to be able to enjoy the park and see it as part of their own yard,” says Jo.

Killen chose his materials carefully. “Contemporary design can be cold and unwelcoming,” he says. “I wanted to use natural materials to make it seem warm and cozy.” The simple design palette consists of limestone, glass, bronze and koa wood, a sustainable, South American hardwood selected for its durability. “It will resist the hardness of a beach environment: sun, wind, salt spray,” he explains. He also used koa wood inside for the floors and ceilings, creating a visual continuity between the inside and out. “There’s hardly a carpet in the place,” he says. The rich textures of the natural materials also avoided another common pitfall of minimalist design: “I’m not a fan of starkness,” the architect asserts. “Drywall is not one of my favorite building materials. Wood and stone have warmth that takes some of the edge off the geometric design.”

Stepping inside from the walk street, the entryway is a dramatic two stories, reflecting the staggered design of Killen’s façade. “We created the first floor, then, stepped back for the second floor, and brought the third floor forward, cantilevering it outward, extending it over the first floor,” he explains, indicating the home’s asymmetrical façade. It looks as if each floor had been daringly and precariously balanced upon the other. The irregularity continues upward. “We used five different roof plays,” Killen says. “We wanted to balance the mass, not just create a bulky rectangle, a pile of boxes placed precisely atop one another.”

The staircase, lit by a skylight and George Nelson fixtures above, defines the space. “Staircases are a trademark of ours,” the architect explains. This one has big spaces between its stair treads, to create a sense of weightlessness. Behind it, a wall of Lexan and reeds is lit by small florescent bulbs to create a night light for climbing the stairs in the dark. “We want to make each one a work of art, and we never repeat a design. For this client, they have small children, so she probably climbs those stairs a hundred times a day, so why not make it a pleasurable, elegant experience?”

There is an elevator, too, in case those trips become too exhausting.

The living room, dining room and kitchen are open to one another, and an outdoor deck shares a double-sided fireplace with the living room. That stone element helps support the master bedroom suite above.

In the kitchen, Killen installed taupe colored glass cabinets from Scandalini. “We used so much wood in the house; we didn’t want to repeat it in the kitchen. It works well, because it connects visually with the living room and the dining room. When both sets of glass doors are open, you can walk outside onto the deck and walk all around the entire second floor. They like to keep the doors open to the ocean breezes.”

The clients did the interior design themselves, selecting simple, comfortable modern pieces, upholstered in fabrics that are chic, yet child-proof, like Ultra-Suede.

The custom-made dining room table is made of the same exotic koa wood seen throughout the house, as is the triangular counter in the kitchen, lined with Eames chairs for casual meals. The clients enjoy entertaining and cook at home most evenings, so the kitchen had to be fully equipped with a Wolff range, a SubZero refrigerator and additional refrigerated drawers for a serious home chef.

John and Jo Karambelas’ highest priority was to create a livable, family home, not an architectural marvel or a design showcase. “The challenge, when you commit to modern design, is sometimes resigning yourself to trying to live in a work of art that may not be very practical,” says John astutely. “We have been in some houses that looked amazing, but we had to wonder, ‘How do you live here?’ We wanted a house that we could live in comfortably, where our kids can play and grow up.”

Creating a kid-friendly space dictated the interior design. Fabrics and finishes were selected as much for their sturdiness as for their looks. “We got a lot of fabric samples and spilled stuff on them,” John recalls. “We came back after 45 minutes and tried to clean it. If the stains didn’t come out, we didn’t use it.”

Killen’s design for the Karambelas family creates the perfect balance between the public and the private. Its hilltop elevation and the surrounding trees preserve the family’s privacy, yet its openness and connection to the walk street and adjacent park maintain their sense of being part of a vibrant and close-knit beach community.

“You’ve got to be outgoing to live in this area,” says Killen. “If you want to be a hermit, you’ll find it very frustrating.”

For the Karambelases, a sense of community enhances the sense of home. “We’re very happy here,” says John. “Patrick accomplished everything we hoped for; there is nothing we would change about out house.”

Patrick Killen, AIA
139 Hermosa Avenue in Hermosa Beach