Weaving a Narrative: How Storytelling Shapes Design Across Scales

Storytelling—Our Design Process at EPTDESIGN.

What if a designer approached a project like a writer crafting a story? Instead of characters and plot, the designer focuses on the unique context of the place—its history, culture, and the people who will use it. This context becomes the foundation for a narrative, a story woven into the very fabric of the design.

As the designer delves deeper, the layers of context intertwine. Perhaps the site was once a bustling marketplace, or a quiet meadow teeming with life. Maybe the future users are students seeking a place to study, or a family yearning for a connection to nature. By understanding these layers, the design narrative becomes personal and unique. It’s no longer just about aesthetics, but about forging a deeper connection between people and the space they’ll inhabit.

This narrative then guides every design decision. Imagine a university courtyard. The narrative might tell a story of honoring the land’s indigenous history. Native plants are chosen to honor their now forgotten use and value. The design incorporates open areas for gatherings, reflecting the needs of a vibrant student community. The materials used echo the architectural style of the surrounding buildings, creating a sense of harmony. Every element, from the spatial forms to the materials and plantings, reflects the story woven into the design.

The beauty of storytelling in design is its fluidity. It adapts to fit the project’s scale and user group. A sprawling public park might tell a story of the city’s heritage, using design elements that evoke a bygone era. A private garden, on the other hand, might tell a story of family connection, incorporating spaces for play, gathering, and quiet reflection.

Ultimately, every design aspires to capture the spirit of its place. It’s about listening to the voices of the past and the needs of the present. Through storytelling, designers can create spaces that resonate with users, fostering a sense of belonging and connection that transcends mere functionality. The final design becomes not just a structure or a landscape, but a continuation of the narrative, a place where the story comes alive, and is allowed to continue.

In this blog post, we explore how EPTDESIGN uses storytelling as the foundation of its design process, applicable to projects of various type, scale, and context. We’ll delve into three distinct projects, each with its own narrative thread.

  • The Neighborhood at State and Hope: A bustling, mixed-use development in Santa Barbara, California, tells the story of a place deeply rooted in its surroundings, celebrating the city’s heritage and natural beauty.
  • California State University, Channel Islands (CSUCI) Manzanita Courtyard: A tranquil academic space nestled within a university campus, embodies a narrative of inclusivity, respect for history, and fostering student well-being.
  • Private Coastal Residence: This project showcases the story of a private sanctuary, seamlessly integrated into the coastal landscape, catering to the needs of a family looking for a refuge from the busyness of the world.

Through these diverse examples, we’ll illustrate how we harness the power of storytelling to weave a narrative through the design process, from understanding a site’s context to crafting a final product that resonates with those who will use it.

The Neighborhood at State and Hope — Capturing the Essence of Santa Barbara

A City Block Steeped in History
The Neighborhood at State and Hope, a mixed-use development encompassing an entire city block in Santa Barbara, California, exemplifies the power of storytelling in large-scale design. The narrative revolves around the site’s history as a citrus grove, then developed into a late 1960s big box retail site in a sea of parking, and its underused connection to an adjacent, vibrant pedestrian mall. The design team—through a collaborative effort involving EPTDESIGN, David Baker Architects, Cearnal Collective, and Flowers & Associates—aimed to capture the essence of Santa Barbara, by honoring its Mediterranean architectural heritage and inherent natural beauty.

Incorporating the Narrative into Design Choices
This narrative translates into design choices that evoke a sense of history and discovery. The design breaks down the large site into smaller blocks, creating a walkable “neighborhood” that fosters a sense of community.

This “neighborhood” is comprised of traditional courtyards and paseos, reminiscent of historic downtown Santa Barbara, meant to encourage meandering and exploration. Visitors strolling through these open spaces experience sunlight filtering through trees, and the gentle murmur of conversation through various gathering areas. Parking is now all underground, prioritizing a pedestrian-centric experience reflecting the relaxed and slower pace of life in the new Santa Barbara “neighborhood.” This approach reflects the human scale of historic Santa Barbara, encouraging chance encounters and a feeling of belonging.

Further reinforcing the story’s narrative, the design orients view corridors and roof decks towards the majestic Santa Ynez mountains, a visual landmark deeply ingrained in the Santa Barbara identity. Thoughtful tree placement acts as a wayfinding tool and enhances the visual experience. “Gateway Trees” orient people to entries and key circulation routes. “Iconic Trees” anchor gathering places. And “Tree Allees” provide shade and a layer of green throughout the block. Visitors can catch a glimpse of the mountains beyond the foreground of tree canopy, a constant reminder of the region’s natural beauty. The plant palette reflects this beauty, featuring water-wise native and regionally appropriate selections, providing ongoing seasonal interest, while showcasing environmental responsibility and a commitment to the region’s unique ecosystem.

Sustainability: A Woven Thread
Sustainability is seamlessly woven into The Neighborhood at State and Hope’s story. The pedestrian-centric design encourages walking, cycling, and public transportation, reducing reliance on cars. Stormwater management systems capture and treat rainwater on-site, minimizing the burden on the city’s infrastructure and showcasing responsible water management practices. Water-wise landscaping demonstrates a commitment to resource conservation, ensuring the project’s long-term vibrance and sustainability.

The Enduring Story of The Neighborhood at State and Hope
Ultimately, the design tells the story of a place deeply rooted in its surroundings, offering a lively, connected neighborhood that celebrates the spirit of Santa Barbara. It’s a story not just about aesthetics, but about fostering a sense of belonging, environmental responsibility, and a connection to the unique character of the city.

The Neighborhood at State and Hope becomes more than a development; it becomes a vital part of the Santa Barbara tapestry, a space where residents and visitors can connect with the city’s history, natural beauty, and vibrant culture.

California State University Channel Islands, Manzanita Courtyard — A Place of Learning and Well-being

A Hidden Gem
Our next project is located at the Western edge of the Santa Monica Mountains, with fields of crops stretched out in all directions, a testament to the region’s agricultural tradition. Set within the embrace of California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI), is Manzanita Courtyard. This tranquil space tells the story of respect, learning, and student well-being.

Surrounded by stately buildings clad in the warm hues of Mission Revival architecture, the courtyard feels like a secret garden. Classrooms stand sentinel on all sides, their second stories casting cool shadows on the ground below. An existing fire lane, once a utilitarian path, cuts a straight line through the space, providing connection to the wider campus.

An existing specimen Jacaranda tree, its delicate lavender blooms a splash of color against the terra cotta rooftops, stands guard over the courtyard. Its presence speaks of time, of countless students who have passed beneath its shade, lost in thought or lively conversation. It is the courtyard’s anchor, a silent witness to the stories that unfold within its walls.

Acknowledging the Land’s Legacy
CSUCI’s Manzanita Courtyard—nestled within the university campus—showcases storytelling in a medium-scale project. The narrative acknowledges the site’s history as Chumash ancestral land and its location within a network of existing academic courtyards.

A Collaborative Approach Reflects Inclusivity
The design team, which included PBWS Architects, Encompass Consultant Group (ECG), faculty, students, and donors, prioritized listening and responding to the diverse needs of the campus community through a series of design charettes. This collaborative approach reflects the narrative of inclusivity and respect.

A Dialogue between Past and Present
History and function intertwine beautifully. The campus itself echoes the Mission Revival architecture, evident in the surrounding two-story buildings. The Courtyard design reflects this heritage by incorporating low plaster walls and warm brick paving, creating a harmonious conversation between past and present. This connection extends further, with the use of decomposed granite and layered native planting referencing the surrounding agricultural fields, a gentle nod to the region’s character.

Anchoring the Space with an Honored Tree
The Jacaranda tree, a beloved landmark, stands tall within the courtyard. The designers embraced this existing specimen tree, incorporating it into the overall space and ensuring its continued role as a cherished anchor, and pop of seasonal color for students and faculty alike.

For Reflection, Study, Connection, and Well-being
But the Manzanita Courtyard is more than just aesthetics. It’s a place designed to nurture student and faculty well-being. The space is divided into two distinct areas, each catering to different needs. The south side transforms into a formal court, its banded brick paving offering a platform for outdoor classes, campus events, and even commencement ceremonies. Mature Date Palms provide shade and mirror the architectural lines of the surrounding buildings.

The north side offers a contrasting experience. A more informal garden: grove of olive trees shading loose seating within a field of decomposed granite and native plantings. This space beckons for quiet contemplation, a refuge for students seeking a moment of peace amidst the academic bustle. The variety of spaces caters to all sizes of gatherings and uses, ensuring everyone can find their own corner of serenity or collaboration.

Ultimately, the Manzanita Courtyard’s story is one of respect, connection, and well-being. It’s a space that honors history, fosters a sense of community, and provides students and faculty with a haven to learn, grow, and connect with nature. It’s a testament to the power of design, a story written not just in aesthetics but in the language of human needs and aspirations.

Private Residence in a Coastal Setting — A Haven for Refuge and Retreat

A Vision from the Bluff
The wind moves its way through the majestic oaks that grace this 1.5-acre coastal site. This contemporary private residence, resting on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, isn’t just a house; it’s a story woven from the threads of place, history, and a deep connection to nature.

When standing at the edge of the property, the vastness of the Pacific Ocean stretches out before you, the Channel Islands shimmering like jewels in the distance. If you turn your gaze north, the majestic Santa Ynez Mountains rise, their peaks touching the clouds. This panoramic canvas is the foundation upon which this story unfolds.

Returning the Landscape to Its Natural State
The land remembers its past. Once a series of native plant communities – oak woodland, native meadow, and coastal sage scrub – the design team, a collaboration between DesignARC, Ashley & Vance Engineering, and most importantly, the client family themselves, embarked on a journey of restoration. Their vision? To return the landscape to its native state, a timeless testament to the beauty of California’s Central Coast.

The Dialogue between Landscape and Architecture
The existing, native Coast Live Oak trees, silently standing for generations, became the heart of the narrative, anchoring the now restored landscape. As you traverse the site, one rises through an open native meadow, bordered by Oak woodland, with views north to the Santa Ynez mountains. Entering the motor court, the natural meadow plantings blend into curated masses of soft grasses and architectural plant selections, complimenting the clean lines of the modern home. Looking south over the “lawn” (California native grass: Agrostis pallens), the supplemented coastal bluff plantings beckon to the Channel Islands and beyond. Here, the landscape embraces the boundless horizon, the plantings natural to the region.

This isn’t just a visual connection; it’s a physical one too. The seamless integration of house and garden creates a haven for the family. Indoor and outdoor lines are blurred, with outdoor rooms becoming an extension of the interior.

The family splashes in the pool, laughter echoes throughout the living spaces, or they gather around the firepit under the starlit sky. There’s an edible garden, a testament to self-sufficiency and a connection to the land. Quiet corners invite reflection, while expansive spaces foster family gatherings and celebrations.

This private residence is more than just a place to live; it’s a story of belonging. It’s a refuge from the hustle and bustle of city life, a place to reconnect with nature and celebrate the simple joy of being together. It’s a testament to the power of design, a story spoken not just in aesthetics, but in the language of family, nature, and the enduring spirit of the California coast.

At EPTDESIGN, we believe that design transcends the realm of mere aesthetics and functionality. Design has the power to forge a deeper connection between people and the spaces they inhabit. Storytelling unlocks this potential by weaving a narrative that considers each project’s unique context. This narrative, informed by factors like place, history, culture, and the intended users, breathes life into the design, fostering a sense of belonging and emotional resonance.

The Neighborhood at State and Hope is currently in schematic design.
CSU Channel Islands is under construction.
The Private Residence is under construction.