On The Case With Scott Gillen: The Making Of $500-Million Malibu Enclave

Scott Gillen is many things. Builder. Artist. Designer. Perfectionist. Visionary. Bold. Unapologetic.

“I’m not here to impress anyone, and that’s the truth,” said Gillen.

Still, there is no denying that his latest development called The Case —  five oceanfront homes on 24 acres next to Malibu Bluffs Park — is impressive. While one community, each Case Study home is unique.

Case Study No. 1 is 11,097 square feet with five bedrooms and seven bathrooms and a massive cantilevered roof.

Case Study No. 2, measuring 10,727 square feet with five bedrooms and seven bathrooms, has a series of butterfly rooflines and a hidden gym beneath a 133-by-33 foot infinity pool.

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Case Study No. 3 has 10,527 square feet with five bedrooms and eight bathrooms and a 75-foot infinity pool positioned perpendicularly from the home to look like a diving board into the Pacific.

The entrance of the 10,555-square-foot, four-bedroom and seven bathrooms Case Study No. 4 is surrounded by custom, 13-foot high glass and teak panels that match the 850-pound custom teak front door.

Case Study No. 5, with five bedrooms, nine bathrooms and 11,927 square feet, is the largest of the bunch and showcases a glass-enclosed great room that connects both wings of the home.

Robert Gold, a development partner with Big Rock Partners with Oaktree Capital, which previously owned the land, said Gillen’s vision is inspiring.

“When you walk out there and you see these houses rising from nothing, it’s amazing,” Gold said.

According to Gold, Big Rock founding chairman Richard Ackerman originally bought the land in 2005 and initiated plans to develop the site, which had been relatively unknown until that point.

“Richard couldn’t believe that there was something of this magnitude on such a prominent site that hadn’t been built in Malibu,” Gold said.

That all changed in 2017 when Gillen, who had been eyeing the dirt, bought the bluff for $50 million — setting a new record for an undeveloped land purchase in Malibu.

Gillen, the founder of UnvarnishedCo, has built 25 homes since 2005. Still, he always wanted to create a community.

“I wanted to build an entire environment and that is what The Case is,” Gillen said. “The WHO was the first one I did, which happens to be down the street, but that was only four homes, and they were nowhere near the size of The Case homes.”

Looking to minimize the impact of the cliff-side development, Gillen is building all five homes simultaneously.

“I don’t want buyers to have to live next door to the construction,” he said. “I want people to get the vibe of the entire development and take it in all at one time.”

Even for the most talented multitasker, The Case development has proven to be a challenge.

“I have built as many as two houses at one time, but they were side-by-side,” Gillen said. “This is five houses; each one is different, a different size, and the project is strapped across 24 acres.”

Gillen admitted that building five homes at once has been a logistical nightmare but credited his team for keeping the project moving forward. “The numbers are staggering; everything is multiplied by five,” he said. 

Understanding Gillen’s approach to homebuilding is an exercise in deconstruction. He first builds the home’s exterior then fine-tunes the project piece by piece.

“I build a house with the shell first,” he said. “Then, I make tons and tons of changes as the house evolves.”

Like the experimental Case Study House Program from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, Gillen’s Case Study homes come furnished with custom furniture branded by his UnvarnishedCo and some of his favorite designers.

But achieving real individuality in each Case Study house has been difficult.

“In each house, the great rooms are very large, so each one has at least two couches, if not more,” he said. “Right out of the gate, you’re looking at 10 well-built couches, whether it be UnvarnishedCo’s custom furniture, Minotti, Poliform or Flexform.”

Gillen’s drive for perfection can create problems. Still, he has accepted this as part of his overall process.

The resulting effort makes each home unique, featuring clerestory windows, big glass, expansive living spaces, and warm woods like oak, walnut, teak and mahogany.

“It’s important to me that when the owner of Case No.5 walks over to Case No.4, they don’t say, ‘Oh, this looks just like my house,'” he said.

To do this, Gillen said he is always in motion and isn’t bashful about tossing stuff he doesn’t like, even if it’s custom-made.

“It either goes in a pile and gets thrown away, or we try to use it somewhere else and slightly alter it,” he said, adding that the process is “an ongoing battle.”

The adept multitasker is pushing on and anticipates that all five homes will be finished by the end of 2021.

While he admires the work of the Case Study House Program architects, Gillen’s vision is unique. The Case moniker is a nod to his roots, growing up in Los Angeles in the 1960s, when Mid-Century Modern architecture was all the rage.

But in an age of recycled trends and reboots, Gillen is unapologetic when it comes to his singular approach.

“I’m not a fan of copying people; I try to do what Scott Gillen does, not what someone else would do,” he said. “If there’s a driver in my process, it is that I love open space living, and I like single-story homes.”

For Gillen, who drove stunt cars in his youth before directing commercials for 17 years, the picture has to be precise.

“Most people frame a house and put the lights up based on the room ceiling size. I don’t do that,” he said. “If there is a 13-foot tall wall of glass, I want the light in the middle of that piece of glass, and if 14 panes are going across the front with sliding windows, I want to see 14 lights directly in the middle of all those windows, so the pattern flows.”

He’s even gone as far as to reconfigure ceilings so that the roof rafters are in the right place.

“There are a lot of fights and defeats and re-engineering and re-calculations going on,” he explained.

With his director’s eye, Gillen has exceedingly high expectations for everything he produces.

“I don’t believe that you should walk into the house and realize that anything exists; you should realize the space in its totality,” he said. “Your brain works a certain way; you see things like a picture. When it comes to the composition, I want everything to be smooth and seamless.”

Gillen said that it’s the same approach he takes for filming. “If something jumps out at the viewer, you’ve missed it, and I have to take it apart,” he said.

From the entrance to the exit, Gillen tells a story with every home he builds. But how do you do that with open space living?

“You have invisible passageways without walls, so I have to show people where to sit,” he said. “You have to tell a story about how you live and operate in a home with lighting and rugs and furniture. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a story.”

And for Gillen, telling the story is everything. “It’s part of the method to the madness of how these houses flow,” he added.

Gillen’s minimalistic flow and vibe can be hard to define, but buyers seem to love the stories he is telling and selling, and he likes them, too.

“Subliminally, I like it when people say, ‘I love this!’ and I will say, ‘What do you like about it?'” he explained. “I want to hear what they like, what makes them happy. But at my core, I like to make things, whether it’s a car or a commercial or a house. I love the art of creating something.”

Gillen said The Case Study homes could be his last mega-project, but most people who know him wouldn’t take that bet.

“I say every day that when I’m done with this, I’m going to go back to one or two houses, and that is it,” he said. “But I know that if someone came to me with a huge piece of dirt that could have 15 houses on it, I would probably jump in.”

Case Study No.3 is listed with Gary Gold of Hilton & Hyland, an exclusive member of Forbes Global Properties. Founded in 2020, Forbes Global Properties is a consumer marketplace and membership network of elite brokerages selling the world’s most luxurious homes.

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