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Shack Attack

Laguna Beach couple turns a pest-infested dwelling into 2,500 very livable square feet. But the job wasn't exactly a slam dunk.


Coby Naess thought he had finally found it: a Laguna Beach cottage he and his then-fiancee, Janelle Watton, could fix up before starting their life together.

But the young couple had to first overcome one glitch. They would have to buy the home sight unseen.

Situated on a 6,100-square-foot lot that had been neglected for two decades, the cottage was hidden within an overgrown jungle; dense shrubs and weeds blocked any view of the home.

The property's owner, who lived in Los Angeles, had been renting the cottage to the same tenant for 20 years. Because the tenant feared eviction, he was uncooperative with the couple's efforts to see the dwelling.

Undaunted, Coby went forth with the purchase. He knew such a large lot in his hometown was a rare find and its dismal condition would give him leverage when negotiating a price. Besides, he and Janelle had already fallen in love with the beach-close neighborhood's mature trees and gently sloping streets.

As soon as escrow closed, the couple ventured through the tangled vegetation. To their dismay, their "starter home" was a pest-infested, 400-square-foot shack with dirt floors, exposed wiring and holes in the roof and walls.

The 80-year-old shanty didn't even have running water. A garden hose had been strung through the broken kitchen window into a sink. What's more, it seemed that someone had been living among the flora in a tent.

The cottage was uninhabitable.

The couple would have to start from scratch.

"We were totally unprepared and naive about what goes into building a home," said Coby, 32, a sales representative for an Orange County food-equipment company.

They started by clearing the lot, a task that would take several months to complete.

"Coby spent every weekend filling up dumpsters," said Janelle, 31, a local pharmaceutical-sales representative.

Meanwhile, Coby's friend referred him to Laguna Beach architect Doug Mansfield, whose custom designs grace some of Orange County's elite communities, including Newport Beach's Lido Isle and Dana Point's Ritz Cove.

After interviewing the couple, Mansfield asked them to tear out design images they liked from home magazines. From those images, Mansfield developed the first sketches of the couple's dream home.

"It was amazing," Coby said. "He knew exactly what we wanted."

The couple, who married in September 1999, moved into their home 13 months later.

The 2,500-square-foot, split-level home--built by Grady-O-Grady Construction of Laguna Hills--blends the charm of a beach cottage with contemporary drama. While the exterior's wood siding, covered front porch and decorative gable recall a bygone era, the home's soaring ceilings, expansive windows and white-on-white color scheme give it a modern flair.

It was important to the couple and to the city's design review board that the home stay within the neighborhood's traditional, understated style. Yet, Coby and Janelle--sports enthusiasts--asked Mansfield to give the home an "inside/outside feel."

"We wanted to have a sense of the outdoors, even when we were inside," Janelle said.

The home's "transparent nature," as Mansfield described it, was achieved through an extensive use of sliding, 8-foot-long French doors (four doubles and three singles), strategically placed windows, and an 8-foot-by-8-foot skylight over the kitchen that casts a sunlit glow in the morning.

There is so much glass that, from the back of the house, one can look straight through the side courtyard, into the living room and past the front porch to see the row of well-manicured homes across the street.


With scenic views in nearly every room--including glimpses of the ocean from the second and thirds levels--the interior of the four-bedroom, three-bath home was kept simple. Walls and trim were painted a gleaming white, as were the wood-beamed and grooved ceilings.

In contrast, the maple wood floor, which extends from the entry to the free-flowing living/dining space and kitchen, was stained a dark coffee-brown. The dramatic combination enhances the sense of spaciousness and gives the home a vibrancy.

The couple have just begun to furnish their home. They began with the living room, perhaps the home's most beautiful space, with its 18-foot-high ceilings, quartzite fireplace and two banks of double French doors: one door provides views of the front porch and lawn, the other opens to the quartzite-paved courtyard and garden.

A tailored sofa--covered in a cool, linen fabric that echoes the quartzite's silvery-taupe shades--anchors the room. It is accented by the first piece of furniture the couple purchased: a rattan chair that Coby's sister picked up at an estate sale for $2 and stained a cocoa color.

A round, wooden coffee table from the 1940s is the couple's most recent purchase; its gently worn patina adds an unusual texture as well as a sense of history.

A huge island, complete with Thermador range/oven, divides the living and dining space from the kitchen.

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