Architect Brett Farrow and his family; photography by Ethan Pines

Community Organizer

by Gillian Flynn | magazine | July 9, 2012

Architect Brett Farrow got to choose his neighbors. All of them.

When Farrow, a sandy-haired surfer, stumbled upon an old lot with a rotting 1912 farmhouse owned by one of Cardiff’s most celebrated residents, he envisioned a new kind of development. No tracts. No condos. And certainly no McMansions. It would be a modern, sustainably designed compound with lots of indoor-outdoor interplay. The kicker? Farrow could pick and choose just who would live there. Like-minded people were encouraged to apply.

“It was almost heartbreaking,” says Farrow, recalling the first time he stumbled upon 125 Mozart Ave., now a restored farmhouse where he resides with his family. The lot is surrounded by five other residences that he’s designed and built from the ground up. “It was overgrown with shrubs; there were collapsing buildings and debris,” he recalls. “But I knew this was the place. Here, we had a chance to live at the beach and have our kids cross the street to their school.”

Farrow, a disciple of S.D.’s developmental architecture icon Ted Smith—who revived Little Italy decades ago—is also a professor at Woodbury University School of Architecture. He approached this project as a package deal, where all the homes would be distinct but designed with location in mind, and with a pureness of materials. (No faux anything allowed!)

Each home was designed specifically for its location on the site, maximizing sunlight in the winter, providing shade in the summer and offering ocean and hillside views from rooftop decks. “The homes merge with the outdoors and allow the owners to expand living spaces into their gardens and enjoy open-air living year-round,” says Farrow, who used bifold doors and real wood siding, which he says are the best solution for coastal areas. S.D.’s Falling Waters was tapped for the sustainable landscape design, where Mexican beach grass blows with coastal breezes.

Early on, the architect struggled to break from his ultra-modern ways. “My puritanical ethos had to take a backseat given the context of the historic house at the center of the property,” says Farrow, who worked under architect Jonathan Segal, and spent a decade in Little Italy where he designed several mixed-use projects. “In the end it proved an inspiration, although I did go through a ‘gable crisis’ where it was hard for me to put a sloped roof on a house again.”

Professional crisis behind him, Farrow now reigns from his idyllic, second-story home office. It is across the street from the elementary school attended by his daughters, Tate, 4, and Elke, 6. It’s also just 500 feet to the beach and a quick jaunt to Seaside Market, where locals shop for overpriced cheese, sushi and particularly beloved tri-tip.

“It is a rare opportunity to live in innovative architecture at the beach, in a walkable community,” says Farrow. “It’s about creating a sense of community—places that are sociable, with front porches, and where design responds to the climate. Cardiff is the suburbs, but it’s one block to everything. Living here means not needing your car for days at a time.”

It’s fitting that the original owner of the farmhouse, Victor Kremer, was himself an arbiter integral to local history. He added “by-the-sea” to Cardiff’s name and was the original developer behind the town’s Composer District. Himself a famous musician and composer, he named the surrounding streets after Rubenstein, Gershwin, Bach, Brahms and Mozart.

Today’s compound dwellers include interior designer Kim Nadel, whose company, Niche, specializes in sustainable design. There’s also a pro skateboarder and his artist wife; a CPA; as well as a doctor; and scientific researcher. Then there’s Farrow’s clan, which includes his wife Heidi; a dog; two cats; and two chickens, one of which lays blue eggs. “She’s a local celebrity. The kids love to see her,” Farrow says.
Nadel’s residence is an appropriate mix of mod and local, stocked with art from San Diego galleries and furniture from her own line. “I was going for a lofty, coastal feel,” she says. “I live by the direction of the sun. In the afternoon, I almost always open all the doors and I just naturally feel like inviting people into the home.”

For Farrow and his commitment to SoCal living, that translates to a mission accomplished. 
“What still strikes me is my downtown colleagues tell me I got the North County beach feel just right, while everyone I know in North County thinks the project is so very modern. It’s a bit of both and everyone sees it a little differently.”