Jeanne Chen and Bob Dolbinski had a rule of thumb when they were hunting for an affordable lot on which to build a house on the outskirts of Los Angeles: “If I got carsick on our way to see a piece of land, that was our cutoff,” said Ms. Chen, 55.
“There’s not a lot of land left for sale,” said Mr. Dolbinski, 56. “We looked in the far reaches of Malibu — not by the ocean, but way up in the hills. That’s where we got some very windy roads.”
After about five years of nausea, the couple, both principal architects with Moore Ruble Yudell, could hardly believe their luck when they found a listing for a more down-to-earth lot in the Rustic Canyon area of Pacific Palisades — just a couple of blocks from the Eames House and other well-known modernist homes — for a fraction of the cost of other properties they had seen.
“We saw the land on a Sunday morning, when the fog was just settling into the lower reaches of the canyon,” Mr. Dolbinski said. “It was very peaceful, the birds were chirping and the view was beautiful.”
One aspect, however, wasn’t quite so idyllic: The 3,200-square-foot lot was incredibly steep, with a slope that angled down more than 45 degrees.
“You couldn’t walk on it, because you would just slide down,” Mr. Dolbinski said.
Ms. Chen added: “It was air rights, basically.”
Others might have called it a cliff and walked away, but Ms. Chen and Mr. Dolbinski saw potential, and bought the lot in 2004 for about $200,000.
“That’s probably about one-fifth of what we would have paid in that location, at that time, for a tear-down lot,” Ms. Chen said.
They structured the deal with a long closing that allowed them to bring in a structural engineer, soil engineer and concrete contractor, to make sure the lot could actually support a house, before the sale was final.
Then they spent nearly a decade getting the approvals they needed to build.
“The process was extended because it required city, state and county approvals all along the way, with public hearings throughout,” Ms. Chen said. “And during that time, the hillside ordinances changed several times.”
As their allowable building envelope got squeezed, she said, “we kept redesigning and redesigning.”
Finally, at the end of 2013, they broke ground. First came an elaborate foundation system with about 20 concrete piles set more than 50 feet deep and a tall, C-shaped retaining wall to hold the sides and back of the hillside in place. That cost around $600,000 and took about a year to complete.
Within the resulting pocket of space, they built a three-story, 2,000-square-foot house, with three bedrooms and three and a half bathrooms, for an additional $400 a square foot.
From the street, the house, completed late last year, resembles a tiny, low-slung, single-story home with a carport. But “we don’t really use it to park cars,” Ms. Chen said. “We use it as an outdoor gathering space, because it’s the largest flat area outside the house.”
The rest of the home remains hidden from view until you descend the floating white-oak staircase inside, or one of two exterior stairs on either side of the house.
The top level contains a studio space that doubles as a guest bedroom. The middle level is the open living space, where kitchen, dining and lounging areas flow together. The bottom level has two bedrooms.
Throughout, windows and openings in interior walls are designed to frame the best views outside while allowing daylight to flood every room.
Ms. Chen and Mr. Dolbinski sought to keep interior finishes simple. They designed extensive built-in cabinetry and furniture with exposed birch-plywood edges, including kitchen cabinet doors with cutouts instead of pulls. Walls are plaster with integral color instead of paint. On the bottom two levels, they left ceilings open to expose the joists and maximize head space.
“We had to be really careful about where services went, like lighting, plumbing and the fire sprinkler,” Mr. Dolbinski said, as they couldn’t be hidden behind drywall.
Outside, the house is finished with a metal roof and a facade of Öko Skin concrete slats, which the architects chose for protection from wildfires and to minimize future maintenance.
One extravagance is a small elevator.
“Bob’s dad is 94, my father is turning 90 this year, and our mothers are in their late 80s,” Ms. Chen said. The elevator, they hope, will keep the vertiginous house accessible to everyone.
“Not only for our parents and other older visitors,” Mr. Dolbinski clarified. “But also for ourselves, so we can age into this house gracefully.”