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Down by the water

With space at a premium in Coronado, some landowners are finding extra room to build by digging deep. It's a solution with problems of its own.

October 25, 2002|Hilary E. MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

The clients, from Phoenix, had dreamed of a house on the water in Coronado, the "island" that lies across a graceful arc of bridge spanning San Diego Bay.

Surrounded on three sides by glimmering blue bays and the Pacific Ocean, the seductive 13.5-square-mile city of Coronado is connected to the mainland by only a narrow, silvery spit of sand. Real estate in this exclusive enclave sells for more per square foot than almost anywhere else in California, and rarely comes on the market. Newcomers hoping to get a foothold here will spend astronomical sums to buy any odd piece of property they can.

So when the clients got a chance at a piece of land with a to-die-for view of downtown San Diego, they snapped it up -- for around $2 million.

It had some drawbacks. It was small -- about 7,500 square feet. The previous owner had sold viewing rights to the two-story house behind, so they couldn't build higher than 11 feet. At high tide the water on the bay lapped to within 65 feet of where they wanted to begin construction.

"When they first got it, I looked at it and thought, 'What are you going to do, have galoshes in the front room?' " said Harry Jackman, of the Coronado-based Jackman Group, a planning, design and construction firm.

Architect Tom Vaughn had a better idea: Build down. "Basically, it's free space," Vaughn said. "You can have all the bulk and height you need."

Two and a half years and 1,100 square yards of concrete later, the clients from Phoenix have an 8,500-square-foot house, with more than half of it underground, including a 2,500-square-foot garage and 2,500 square feet of living space, with elevator, sauna and media room.

"At the beginning, I was wondering if this was all even possible," said the lady of the house, who declined to give her name. "That was before I became a believer."


The big squeeze

The concept of living underground in sunny Southern California may sound like bad science fiction or a throwback to the era of the bomb shelter, but it turns out to be an imaginative -- if expensive -- way to get around strict zoning ordinances and squeeze really big houses onto really small lots. In Coronado, where the floor-area ratio above ground is tightly controlled and houses can be no more than two stories above grade, contractors can build out to the property line below ground.

"You can go 40 stories below grade!" Vaughn said, as if he's waiting for a client to ask him to.

The Phoenix couple's house was not the first on Coronado to be built down. In the last 15 years, Ralph Brienza and his son David, owners of Coronado Construction Management Inc., have built about 12 underground structures -- mostly garages and storage spaces. The Jackman Group has built a total of seven houses underground in the last decade, and two more are in the works. And recently, Santee-based Fred C. Perry Construction undertook its first underground structure -- a $12-million, 8,400-square-foot home on the bay. Perry, too, said he has plans for several more.

The underground phenomenon isn't new -- homes burrowed into hillside berms were popular in the energy-conscious 1970s, and commercial buildings have long been built down, to accommodate parking, utilities and even shopping malls. But building basements below the water level does seem to be unique to Coronado. Representatives from the research arm of the National Assn. of Home Builders and the Building and Industry Councils of Los Angeles and San Diego counties said they could not recall such underground living spaces being built anywhere else.

Donna Morafcik, communications director for the Building and Industry Assn. of San Diego, said La Jolla is comparable to Coronado in both income level and scarcity of land. "On a wide-scale basis, though, I haven't seen the whole underground thing come into play regionally," she said.

Building down solves some problems peculiar to Coronado but has peculiarities of its own. Jackman and Vaughn have hit the water table in five of the seven houses they've built so far. Brienza has hit water with all of the houses he's built there.

Brienza said he built 500 houses in Denver that had to deal with artesian wells and spring water flooding into the foundations. He claims to have brought the concept of building underground to the Coronado Cays, where he began to build houses with basements within 15 feet of the sea walls. He said he has had no problems so far.

"My concept is that you have to build good bathtubs," he said.

Sometimes, though, builders confront unexpected obstacles. Perry confessed he "lost a few nights sleep" on his first venture underground. "We had 14 pumps going during construction. And then you have to make sure that you're not sucking moisture away from other houses and causing a sinkhole," he said.

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