Paul McClean on his “wild” ride to prominence and that $500M spec home

Paul McClean (Image courtesy of Paul McClean)
Paul McClean (Image courtesy of Paul McClean)

Ireland-born architect Paul McClean has become somewhat synonymous with the high-end housing boom in Los Angeles. While he was undoubtedly prolific before — designing homes for celebrities and high-net-worth buyers that include Clavin Klein and the Winklevoss Twins — McClean became a household name last year after it was revealed he would design developer Nile Niami’s $500 million giga-mansion in Bel Air. He also designed a property at at 454 Cuesta Way that’s reportedly received a bid from Beyoncé and Jay Z.

When The Real Deal sat down with McClean last week, he opened up about his design inspirations, the spec home boom and his big break — but he remained tight-lipped about that Niami house.

Did you always want to be an architect?
I studied architecture in Dublin and was always attracted to L.A. for its history of modern residential design. Residential design has always been my thing. When I was a little boy, I used to draw houses and I would ask my parents, ‘What’s a person that does that?’ and they told me it was an architect. When I was in college, everything I was reading about was in L.A. — that’s where the most interesting homes were being built.

Were there particular architects that you gravitated toward?
I loved the Case Study houses, especially because they were designed for regular families. I was a big fan and still am of Richard Neutra. The Kaufmann House in the desert is still one of my absolute favorites. As I got older, there were newer architects that I liked. Frank Israel was amazing but people don’t talk about him much anymore. Growing up in Ireland, I was so intrigued by a home that you could open up to the elements and make the walls go away. Those are things that aren’t possible to do when I grew up — you’d be freezing.

What was your big break in the L.A. market?
In 2005, we did this house on Blue Jay Way, which the Swedish DJ Avicii bought about three years ago. It got a lot of attention and got us going in the Westside market. Timing wise, as we came into the big recession, we bumped into Nile Niami, who we’ve now done a few homes with. He called us after seeing the Blue Jay house. The more homes you do, the more people see. Since then, it’s been wild.

The Blue Jay Way property

What’s your take on the spec home boom?
About half of our projects are homes that are for sale. Most of what we do is for homeowners. So we see both sides of things. I’ve been in this area for 23 years now and the way things have moved the last 5 or 6 years is pretty unique — even for the boom and bust California real estate cycle. The city isn’t a company town anymore — there’s a lot more people, a lot more industry here now. There are a lot of high-net-worth people from around the world coming in and buying homes.

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Are buyers’ sensibilities changing?
With Instagram, people are so much more exposed to different ideas from around the world. People from Europe and Asia are bringing their ideas, too.

Are the developers you’re working for more or less demanding than end-users?
When you’re working for developers here, they want to do a really nice project. It’s not really based on a budget, like you have to make this work at a specific number. It’s nothing like that. They get giddy.

How do you approach designing a new home?
We try to make each one as unique as possible and respond to the site. A lot of this is about making the most of the view — the house just shouldn’t get in the way of the view. The house should be a beautiful place to live in and enjoy your life, but it’s not your life. As these homes get bigger and people want more and more amenities, we look to high-end resorts for ideas. They’re also tremendously expensive — and people obviously have other options — so we’re trying to come up with things that will elicit an emotional reaction from the people who might buy them. We use a lot of water features because they set the atmosphere, especially at entryways.

Nile Niami’s Bel Air mansion

The Hennessy X.O design

There’s an enormous water feature at the mansion you’re designing for Niami. What inspired that?
We think water changes the atmosphere — it makes people slow down. It makes people psychologically adjust where they are. If you’re racing home after a long day and lots of meetings, you can come home and enter a new environment.

We heard you’re also designing ice buckets for Hennessy X.O?
It reminded me of some of our projects, because both glass and ice reflect light.

What’s your favorite home you’ve designed?
That would be like having a favorite child.