Winters in Chicago can be tough. According to the National Weather Service, this past winter was one of Chicago’s coldest, with the Windy City raking in the most days with temperatures at or below zero ever recorded. Brr. These chilly (OK, downright freezing) conditions are what drove a family to start looking for a warmer, sunnier life.

The rocky, picturesque ocean cliffs of Big Sur, California, eventually won their hearts and raised their body temperatures. They found a small cliff-hugging lot and searched for a skilled architect who could design something that wouldn’t slip off into the sea.

While sitting in an airport one day, one of the homeowners flipped through a magazine and came across the Jackson Family Retreat, a house in Big Sur designed by architect Anne Fougeron. He loved the modern style and copper exterior. So he called up Fougeron and asked her to design a home that celebrated the moderate climate and heart-racing views of the Pacific.

Read by the Sea, Store Your Favorites on These Bookshelves


Houzz at a Glance

Location: Big Sur, California

Who lives here: A family of 4

Size: About 3,700 square feet (344 square meters); 3 bedrooms, 3½ bathrooms

Photography by Joe Fletcher


Big Sur 1: Joe Fletcher, original photo on Houzz


The home sits on the rocky and rugged Big Sur coast. The property is situated downhill on a steep grade, which Fougeron used to her advantage.

“I had this idea of having the house cascade down the hill to take advantage of the view as much as possible,” she says. “Sometimes modern homes look like they’ve landed on the site out of nowhere. We wanted to make the home indistinguishable from the site, totally embedded and following the contours.”

The home sits 12 feet from the cliff and cantilevers outward. Engineers had to make sure erosion didn’t send the house into the ocean, so they anchored the house with piers drilled deep into the cliff’s bedrock.

The homeowners wanted the best view to be from their main bedroom, which is the only space that faces directly west, toward the ocean. The living spaces face northwest, providing views of both the rugged terrain and the vast ocean.

There’s actually a strategic advantage to this arrangement, Fougeron says. A setting western sun causes all sorts of glare issues off the water, which causes many seaside homeowners to shut all their blinds and never fully enjoy the scenery.


Big Sur 2: Joe Fletcher, original photo on Houzz

Shop for Contemporary Furniture


The den/library is the home’s heart and soul. It connects the main bedroom and living spaces, and is completely encased in glass. “We used a lot of glass,” Fougeron says. “When you’ve got a view like that, you want to show it as much as possible.”

This is where the family gathers to enjoy the view and cross breezes, watch TV, read books and watch otters, whales and dolphins playing in the waves.

In fact, one of the homeowners coveted the view so much that the corner window in this room actually looks through the master bathroom, because he wanted to be able to see a grouping of rocks in the cove below while sitting in this room.

Fougeron helped the homeowners choose furniture that’s “funky but not obtrusive,” she says. She also picked out all the stone for the house. The floors are limestone. The fireplace surround is onyx.

Fougeron worked with a structural engineer to make the structure as light as possible.

The cutouts on the beams were a result of figuring out exactly how much material was needed to provide adequate support and removing everything else. “It highlights the lightness of the room, the daintiness of it all,” she says.


Big Sur 3: Joe Fletcher, original photo on Houzz


The house sits in an area prone to wildfires — and it’s remote enough that any fire department would take quite a while to reach the home — so Fougeron picked non-combustible materials, like copper panels and fire-treated-wood window frames, for the exterior.

The materials had to serve another purpose as well. “Even though [the home is] 250 feet above the ocean, the influence of the sea air and salt is prevalent,” she says. The copper will continue to oxidize and provide a protective coating that never needs to be painted.

The porthole on the green roof is a skylight that doubles as an operating vent for utility systems, because Fougeron wanted to avoid having any vents poking out of the main house’s roof. The green roof also covers a separate bedroom and bathroom, where the property’s caretaker lives.

Fougeron designed the building structure to strategically shield the south areas from the northwest winds. The homeowners can stand in the garden or have a glass of wine on the patio with friends without feeling like they’re going to blow away.


Big Sur 4: Joe Fletcher, original photo on Houzz


The living room is the home’s highest point. The front door opens to a landing that leads down a few stairs; the home continues to cascade after that to the kitchen and down a flight of stairs to the den/library before ending at the master bedroom.

The idea was to have the living room covered in natural materials, rather than Sheetrock. The wood drop-down ceiling adds warmth and helps define the sitting area, but also hides integrated lighting and even the house’s sprinklers and smoke detectors for a clean look.

The furnishings are from B&B Italia. One of the homeowners bought the artwork at an auction. “He picked art that’s a little edgy, and I think it works well in the space,” Fougeron says.


Big Sur 5: Joe Fletcher, original photo on Houzz


The climate in Big Sur is fairly benign, so large doors slide away to give an indoor-outdoor feel. “When it’s sunny you basically live outside,” says Fougeron. “When the wind gets up to 70 miles per hour, that’s when you shut everything up.”

The kitchen is all custom, with white cabinets and dark wood stained to look like mahogany. The countertops are Indian soapstone.

A patio off the living room hangs over the bluff, with glass partitions that virtually disappear.


Big Sur 6: Joe Fletcher, original photo on Houzz


The master bedroom has the best view in the house.

The home sits just off the renowned Pacific Coast Highway, with few neighbors but the sea and rocks.

11 Balconies Straight Out of a Postcard