In 2014, Iain Harris had more than a vision of how to convert a 1942 Quonset hut — packed with rubbish from squatters and industrial relics of a former stained-glass factory — into a home.
He also had a feeling for the transformation, which would include the adjacent casita, an additional unit or ADU, and a courtyard on the downtown Oceanside property.
“This was before Oceanside was cool. (This street) was where a lot of prostitutes and drugs were,” he said.
“Inside, it felt kind of post-apocalyptic,” he said, standing in the open great room of the loftlike, two-bedroom, two-bathroom Quonset hut he shares with his wife, Annie, and their 2-year-old daughter. (Quonset huts are prefabricated structures with arched roofs made from corrugated galvanized steel and used widely during World War II.)
“It just had this kind of strange, lost and forgotten feeling to it. But it happened to have beautiful artistic light, that kind of rakes. It’s northwest-facing, so you never really get any direct sunlight. The breeze felt just like this, when you open the front door, and it just had a really unique feel to it that I could sense and kind of look past all of these other things.”
Harris held fast to his instincts.
“My favorite part of the Harris project is how Iain really had a vision of what the finished project should look like, and we helped him achieve that,” said contractor Katherine Graber of Elysian Contractors, who worked on phase one of the two-phase project.
The transformation began with the Quonset hut conversion, completed in 2015. Then Harris, acting as the builder-owner, oversaw the just-completed adjacent building and courtyard that started two years ago.
It took Harris a while to find Graber, whom he called “the Quonset Hut Queen” for her work on other Quonset hut conversions, including the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach. The first five contractors he contacted all wanted to demolish the Quonset hut. His response was a quick, “This is a unique Quonset hut that has a unique design to it. And if you take that away, then what’s the point?”
He also consulted with architect Steven Dalton to draw up a plan for the entire project. It included the 1,400-square-foot Quonset hut; an adjacent building that houses two units — a 350-square-foot casita with kitchenette and bathroom, and a 900-square-foot ADU on the second floor with two bedrooms and two bathrooms; and a two-car garage and separate one-car garage for the ADU.
“I told him, ‘I have a vision of what I want the space to be. And I want to know what rules I shouldn’t break, and what rules I can break in terms of the design and layout,’ ” said Harris.
To translate his vision into plans, Harris — who has a career in advertising, marketing and film production — Photoshopped his ideas for wall placement, materials and colors onto photos of the space.
Harris and Graber agree that demo and junk removal (everything from empty bottles to kilns) was a hefty challenge.
“I did all the demo work myself and a lot of the nonskilled labor myself,” Harris said. “We filled up four 40-yard dumpsters full of items just from the interior.”
Pointing to the corrugated steel ceiling of his home, Harris said, “Once we pulled all the insulation out, there was this incredible, 80-year-old patina on the old corrugate roof with the galvanized ribs that were exposed. And it just was such an incredible piece and texture that you can’t fabricate or replicate. So, everything pivoted off of it.
“Every time people walk in, they ask, ‘Oh, so you can hear the rain, right?’ Or they see holes in the paneling and the rust and they ask, ‘Is it waterproof?’ In the process of developing a plan set for the city, we had to bring this all up to code, so we have about a foot and a half of insulation on top of the old roof and a new corrugate roof on top of that.”
The galvanized steel does create another sound. “In the heat, or when there are big shifts and thermal conditions, the metal actually expands and contracts, and it creaks,” said Harris.
The ceiling, which has been sealed, has a visible patina.
“The orange and yellow hues set the palette and the design,” Harris said. “We haven’t added too much color — if anything, we keep it pretty muted. Grays, whites, no blacks, stainless or brushed nickel, to allow it to be the focal point.”
All the cabinets and closets come from Ikea, and the counters are white Caesarstone quartzite, creating a clean design juxtaposed with the industrial feel of the original Quonset hut. They used teak in the bathrooms and reclaimed wood from Reclaimed Wood San Diego along the wall above the kitchen cabinets, and along the hallway to the master bathroom at the east end of the hut.
The floors are the original concrete, and kids can bike through the great room into the courtyard, which opens to the home through two sets of massive accordion doors.
As for raising a toddler in the hut, “It’s pretty indestructible in terms of her causing any harm,” Annie said. “You’re not worried about the carpet.”
They added the second bedroom suite at the west send of the hut for their daughter and guests as part of phase two construction. “Before we had the bedroom, I cut down some bamboo and we created a 14-foot tepee that my mom stayed in for three weeks,” Harris said.
The original hut has an unusual design feature that enables the ceiling to arch from a height of 8 feet at the outer walls to 14 feet at the apex. “What makes this Quonset unique is that it has a 30-inch stem wall. So that’s formed concrete that comes up 30 inches, that they brought the ribs (for the arched roof) out of. In a lot of Quonset huts, (the corrugate arch) will be fastened to the ground, so you lose a lot of unusable square footage and it creates this feeling of claustrophobia.”
Annie appreciates the height of the hut. “That allows for the openness, but also fun things, like, we can put a 14-foot Christmas tree here.”
The hut and courtyard are perfect for hosting big groups, from quinceañeras to Thanksgiving dinners for 50 people.
At one point in its past, the hut housed a candle factory with a trench for the melted wax; they were able to use it for plumbing. Electrical wiring and the like are encased in a tube that runs at the center of the ceiling like a vein.
Some of the lighting comes off that vein. “The lights are Hue lights, so they’re programmable and colored,” Harris said, of the smart bulbs that can be controlled wirelessly. “So, at night, my daughter loves it.”
Some of the colored light spills out to the street through the massive fan at the front of the building, which was a gift from Graber and came from the building that now houses the Belly Up.
They weren’t able to salvage much from the original Quonset hut, but they were able to repurpose a metal cooling tray that had been used for the stained glass into shelving, and a mesh metal tool locker on casters into a bar cart.
In the courtyard, they fixed up and flipped over some old fence posts to support an outdoor shade sail. Harris and his father made the garapa wood decking, of Brazilian hardwood, in the courtyard with a solar-powered fan system for moisture control.
Both the Quonset hut and the new building are clad in dark-gray galvanized steel panels. The interiors in the new building feature concrete floors, white counters and Ikea cabinetry, like those in the hut. “We followed the motif from the Quonset hut,” Harris said.
The casita, which features a 15-foot ceiling, opens to the courtyard through a 10-foot roll-up garage door. A friend is currently staying there, but it could be converted to a pool house, as there’s a spot in the courtyard that could accommodate a pool one day.
The upstairs unit has a private entrance and is set back from the courtyard by a deck with a keyhole ocean view. “The way it was designed is very private,” said Harris.
The view of the building from the courtyard is visually interesting: The casita exterior is white stucco, which contrasts with the cladding on the second floor. Also, one of the bedrooms is cantilevered off the casita below.
The view from the ADU deck to the Quonset hut and courtyard below shows off both the simplicity and intricacy of the project Harris envisioned. “Without having too many partitions, it’s private, open and high-density.”
He also appreciates the geometry of the project, like the half-circle of the Quonset hut roof, the cube shape of the casita and the angles of the ADU. “So, there’s some interesting design here.”
Chaffee is an Encinitas-based writer.