Article originally published in the Los Angeles Times
Written by David Hansen

There was a short-lived restaurant across the walkway from Gregg Abel’s business in midtown Laguna Beach.

The restaurant, which took the place of the old Olamendi’s, was floundering. Abel, a building designer, offered to help — maybe redesign some features and rethink the overall details.

Abel has, after all, three generations of can-do in his blood. His father and grandfather before him all rolled up their sleeves and helped people in Laguna. So it pained him to see such potential go to waste on his doorstep.

But his offer never panned out and neither did the restaurant. It closed after only a few months.

This instinct to help is why Abel received this year’s Laguna Hero Fest community award during a ceremony Thursday at the venue [seven-degrees]. He’s a businessman, sure, but he’s given more than 35 years of service to the community.

In addition to his pragmatic, painstaking attention to design, he is the former president of the Chamber of Commerce. He has helped with the Friendship Shelter and is on the board of the Laguna Food Pantry.

“Gregg Abel is everything I love about Laguna Beach: creative, compassionate, full of passion and joy,” said Dawn Price, executive director of the Friendship Shelter, which serves the homeless and low-income. “He has brought all of these gifts to our community and, most important to me, to Friendship Shelter. I walk away happier every time I have the chance to spend some time with Gregg.”

With a strong Danish heritage, Abel doesn’t flaunt his actions, so he is underplaying the award. He’d rather immerse himself in the crisp lines of his work rather than focus on flowery praise.

Which means he’s a craftsman, both in style and philosophy. With his admiration for the arts and crafts movement, he puts design integrity and livability above modern art. Homes should not be precious artifice but strong like families.

What good is a great room if it can’t withstand the rigors of life?

How do you build if don’t get your hands dirty?

Why have a backyard if you can’t play in it?

For Abel, the answers all come down to how a family lives.

“People of course ask me, ‘What’s your goal with the house?’ And I tell them, look, this has to be your house, not mine,” he said. “There’s nothing worse than when you design a house and you get to the end and they realize that something isn’t right — that wall is too small for mom’s bed.”

It’s the living details, those small but important features that play out every day in a house — how a door opens, where the natural flows, whether the sunlight is blocked.

“It’s how they live — kids, mom, dad, grandma’s quarters or whatever,” he said. “It’s important that they have a very good concept of how they like to live. It’s not so important in the bedrooms or bathrooms but the common areas, which would be the living room, dining room and kitchen. Now we call them a great room. A lot of people just want to be totally together in a large room.”

Abel has over the past several years seen changes to the family dynamic as housing costs have increased.

“A lot of people are living with their kids, who are staying home for a much longer time now because of the economy, especially in Laguna Beach,” he said. “Not too many of our children can afford a house here. They have to stay home or move out of town.”

As a result, the approach to home design and remodeling is changing. Despite some mansionization, most Laguna homeowners are not erecting huge additions, Abel said.

“The focus for everybody is small bedrooms that work for the family,” he said. “Sometimes they have a shared bathroom. We’re definitely building smaller homes in Laguna Beach.”

Part of the reason is code constraints on historic homes. People can’t just raze older structures and build to the property line. Besides, Abel said, in most cases people have plenty of house to work from.

“People have to get over it, and they have to learn to work with the home the size that it is,” he said.

Because of the rules around home remodeling, Abel said his firm provides value-added benefits for the homeowner and the community.

“We can give them good advice, like if we have to meet with the historical society or the heritage committees,” he said. “They like what we’re doing. They like to see the type of architecture we do. It stimulates other architects to do the same.”

It’s clear that Abel does what he does because he cares about the community. Plus, if you were to spend any time around him at all, you’d see that he just can’t help himself. He has that restless energy. He doesn’t seem happy unless he’s doing something.

“My dad was an architect,” Abel said. “Even my grandpa built some houses here in Laguna Beach. It’s kind of nice to be a part of that history. That’s what we do. We carry it on.”