HMC Architects’ proposed design for a new San Clemente Marine Safety Headquarters makes creative use of the coastal topography of the Pacific Coast. The design, which recently won an AIA San Diego 2022 Design Award, would place the structure within a bluff, cradled in the earth’s thermal mass. The underground space would enjoy plentiful natural light, passive ventilation, and extreme energy efficiency, with the building anticipated to use 87 percent less energy than average.

Removing the old building would give the beach back to the public, providing 20,000 SF of new public space along the shore. The new public safety facility, the administrative headquarters of the lifeguard corps, would be situated underneath a new public plaza. Many of the facility’s functions, such as loading, maintenance, and storage, are unsightly and occupy valuable public space.

The new design hides these functions below grade while still giving staff uninterrupted views of the beach. On the bluff, extending the terrace outward increases the plaza area 12-fold and the linear footage of seating 25-fold while maintaining the same amount of planted area.

The existing structure was built in 1968 and is a familiar landmark on the Southern California coast. It has fallen into disrepair due to coastal erosion and harsh salt winds. In elevated surf conditions, the existing steel sheet pile wall, which protects the building from waves, is overtopped by the tide, and waves run directly into the building.

Renovating the existing structure in its current location would be expensive and would not provide compliance with modern standards. Furthermore, rising sea levels and storm surges will increasingly threaten the property. To avoid this, HMC proposed using the equivalent renovation budget to create a modern facility while expanding space for public enjoyment.

The transformation of an underutilized hillside into a strong, terraced public plaza, while creatively incorporating existing elements, is commendable. –AIA San Diego Awards Jury.