Shaping a big house so it meets the land gracefully is one of architecture's most difficult challenges. That's why this 10,000-square-foot residence in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., is such an achievement: It occupies a prominent hilltop setting in an exclusive gated community with aplomb. Elegant and refined, the home flows with the site, rather than trying to dominate it. Although Rancho Santa Fe features mostly Mediterranean Revival and other traditional styles, the client asked Safdie Rabines Architects for a modern building. Local design guidelines stipulated a pitched roof and a warm, earthy color palette. The firm obliged, with a twist: "The roofs are pitched in the opposite direction," explains principal Taal Safdie. "They're going up instead of down." And the home's reddish-brown hues come from stained cedar, not painted stucco or clay tile. The architect on the design review committee liked these loose interpretations, however, and gave the project the go-ahead.

The house spans five levels, each separated by just a few stairs. This way it can step down the hillside, opening onto a layered pool area that also follows the site's slope. "Almost every level opens up on grade to the landscape," Safdie points out. "You really feel like you're grounded to the earth."

Travertine floors continue seamlessly from indoors to outdoors, as do stucco walls that eventually become drywall inside. "At times the actual finish does come into the home," says builder Terry Wardell, who took on the project after another company had done the foundation, most of the framing, and some mechanical work. "It's not unusual in a contemporary house to carry some of the exterior wall materials in to complete a plane." Interior fir ceilings are stained to match the cedar soffits outside, further smoothing this transition. Wardell notes that when building a modern house, he figures out these kinds of details early on. "If you don't worry about the detailing until the finish, it's not going to turn out properly."

Custom stucco planters provide privacy and soften the home's visual impact on the landscape. Safdie and her husband and partner, Ricardo Rabines, chose drought-tolerant vegetation that wouldn't look overly manicured. Outdoor spaces include a covered rear dining terrace with a fireplace and barbecue, a corner banquette shaded by a wood-and-steel trellis, and a sundeck around the far end of the terraced, T-shaped pool. "We wanted the pool to be an open space surrounded by living areas," she notes. Like the rest of the house, the exterior rooms' luxurious materials are balanced by an emphasis on human-scale spaces and a respect for the site's contours.

Project Credits:
Builder: Wardell Builders, Solana Beach, Calif.; Architect: Safdie Rabines Architects, San Diego; Living space: 10,000 square feet; Site: 2 acres; Construction cost: Withheld; Photographer: Undine Prohl.

Bathroom fittings and fixtures: GROHE America; Cooktop: Dacor; Countertops: CaesarStone USA; Fireplaces: Lennox International, Town & Country; Fireplaces; Flooring (wood): Tekno North America; Heating system: Viessmann Manufacturing Co.; Lighting control system: Lutron Electronics Co.; Microwave: Viking Range Corp.; Ovens: Miele; Paints/stains/wall finishes: Amteco (TWP - Total Wood Preservative); Refrigerator: Thermador.