The clients for this Berkeley Hills home had recently retired from a life in academia. Moving out from the East Coast, they bought a home we had designed in the early 1990s. After a few years in that home, and now familiar with our work, they contacted me to pursue their dream of building a new home start to finish. We looked for land together and eventually they bought a double lot with spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay.
The primordial relationship of water and canyon wall was the metaphorical origin for the layout of the home. The water is constrained by the topography and yet needs an outlet. Each material and force yields to the other. At each end of our zinc canyon, at the outlets, a courtyard would naturally form, one towards the hillside and protected from the wind, the other towards the west, hanging, completely open to the views and the winds of the Bay.
Our concept was to create three wings connected by two breezeways, one open-air breezeway and one glazed. The transparent breezeways allow views out of the courtyard and their low rooflines accentuate the massing of the primary building elements. Set perpendicular to the glazed breezeway are two water features that appear to extend through the home and axially emphasize the view towards San Francisco Bay. Punctuating the hillside end of this water axis is a monolithic outdoor fireplace. Breaking the house into separate wings allowed us to create two distinct courtyards, one protected and the other open to the almost constant onshore fog and breezes from the Bay.
The house’s exterior is alternately sheathed in zinc shingles, reminiscent of the Craftsman architecture of a century earlier, or stucco. We designed strongly canted shed roofs with deep eaves and delicate structural steel supports to give the house a distinctive look and provide protected exterior circulation and ample surface area for the extensive photovoltaic arrays that power the house.
The hardscape is minimalist, with white concrete extending seamlessly from inside the house and granite cobble bands set to the rhythm of the structural steel frame. The construction module of the home is literally encountered at street edge as you step across the first band of black granite cobbles. A progression begins. The landscape plantings are set on a rigorous grid behind low retaining walls of Cor-ten steel and further extend the strong organization of the building architecture onto the site.
The clients for this expansive compound were a professional couple and their family who owned a large parcel of land about 150 miles north of San Francisco in Willits, California. The compound is both a residence and a facility for a nonprofit ecological foundation.
The extensive property allows for the study of the ecosystem, flora, and fauna, the practice of sustainable forestry, and the reintroduction of native plants. The buildings needed to accommodate both the primary residents and numerous semi-independent guests.
The 1200-acre site is a mix of open grasslands and California live oak, madrone, and Douglas-fir forests. The grasslands provide little shelter from the 100˚-plus days of summer or the freezing and windy periods of midwinter. After long walks on the property with the clients, we all identified a site that would require minimal grading of the land and no tree removal, and was centered around a single, unusually large, rock outcropping. This rock, covered with moss, was a living garden. In the summer the dormant moss turns a deep russet color; seeping with water in the spring, it is once again verdant. The narrative of the seasons passing is told each year on the face of this boulder.
The compound was conceived as a collection of three buildings joined by walkways that wrapped around the rock outcropping, creating refuge from the wind, rain, and sun—a protected center, like a circling of wagons. Reminiscent of an Old West street frontage, these covered walkways provide the summer shade and winter shelter needed to allow comfortable circulation among the three buildings. The intense vermillion stucco exterior is offset by wainscot walls and patios of Choctaw sandstone and steel gray standing-seam metal roofs.
The landscape plans were influenced by a comprehensive inventory of over five hundred species of flora on the site. We wanted to clearly reestablish the native grasses, extending them seamlessly to the edge of the building—celebrating the existing grasslands, with no need for elaboration. Native fescues were planted without irrigation after the first rains of fall. The non-garden was our goal. The interior of the courtyard was treated minimally, with gravel extending simply to the boulder’s base, in the spirit of a Zen rock garden, with grasses beyond.
Just north of San Francisco is the largely suburban and rural County of Marin. The bay side has been developed with upscale suburbs, but with zoning rules the west side, which borders the Pacific Ocean, has remained an agricultural and rural preserve. The Marin coastline is one of green rolling hills that slope down to the rugged palisades that meet the Pacific.
The small town of Stinson Beach is one of the few Marin coastal towns where the rocky coastline yields to a beach—in this case a beautiful, five-mile-long beach. It was here that my wife and I looked for a lot to build our weekend home on. We searched for years and in 2006 we finally found a south-sloping vacant parcel of land that was ideally suited to the energy-efficient second home we envisioned. The small site was connected to the ocean to the west via filtered views and the sound of the surf. To the east, above the site, was a neighboring home, beyond which the view extended to a skyline ridge of Mount Tamalpais. Addressing and enhancing this ridge view proved a starting point for the home’s design.
We were strictly limited by both budget and zoning regulations to a home of 1400 square feet. Space was at a premium. By developing the house plan around a great room, I was able to create an inviting and large environment for all the activities of our extended family and friends. The bedrooms were downscaled to fit a bed and little more. The massing that emerged in the design process was an elevated south-sloping roofline with extensive clerestory windows that accessed the views to the ridges above. Corrugated Galvalume metal, paired with cement board siding, created a sturdy and economical exterior shell for the house.
With an eye towards sustainable design we used open-cell foam insulation, concrete floors, natural ventilation, and recycled materials. The ceiling decking was milled from wood salvaged from the old Stanford University gymnasium. The south-sloping roofline provided ideal orientation for an extensive photovoltaic and solar thermal array. The annual energy needs of the home are entirely supplied by the rooftop arrays.
Two seven-foot-diameter sequoias had ensured over the years that this half-acre site in Portland, Oregon, remained undeveloped. For our clients, finding this land was the first step in their move back to the Oregon neighborhood where they had both grown up. These clients and I had become good friends, and seasoned collaborators, when the firm designed a previous home for them in California. They now envisioned a house that departed from the traditional painted white colonial homes of the area and connected in a meaningful way to the unusual site .
Our design challenge from the outset was to create a building that would respond to and enhance the presence of the giant trees. The building was conceived as three independent structures; a garage and studio; a main house with bedrooms; and a pool house and mechanical structure. By proportioning the overall mass into smaller units, we were able to keep the main house extremely narrow, only twenty-one feet wide, and slide it between the sequoiaat the center of the building site and the property line. This unusual design was the key to protecting the heritage trees.
We vertically stretched the main structure, giving it oversized glazing that rises two stories and allows views from the interior along the trunk and up into the tree branches. The center ridge beam in the main structure is nearly thirty vertical feet from the floor. The axis determined by the two sequoias organizes the relationship of building elements including the pool house, the garage/studio structure, and the curved walls that intersect the main house. Through the different expressions of this axis, the built structure echoes the presence of the giant trees. The structure becomes a sympathetic and harmonious work of architecture, a narrative of the presence of the trees.
WA Design offers new house architecture design services in Berkeley CA. Each home design begins as a considered response to criteria from the client.
This large woodland site lies in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, only ten miles east of San Jose yet far removed from the bustle of Silicon Valley. The clients for this house were a technology company executive and his wife. They envisioned a house sympathetic to the unique site and elegant in execution.
The property is shaded by mature heritage oaks, their dense canopies almost closing over the southern portion of the site. Defining the eastern edge of the property is a meandering seasonal creek. The creek is nearly dry in the heat of summer but swells to a rambunctious flow with the arrival of the winter rains. The riparian habitat along the creek is one of the strongest assets of the site. Dense growths of miner’s lettuce, native juncus, and bay trees crowd the water’s edge. The home is a response to the goals of preserving and enhancing the presence of the existing oak woodland and seasonal creek.
The house massing is a set of smaller structures interconnected by glassed-in walks and vaulted roof structures that wind through the oak canopy, responding in plan to the requirements of the protected driplines. Courtyards and outdoor spaces unite the house and landscape. The pool, pool house, and adjoining patio all step down a gentle slope to meet the large grass playfield to the north. The field is bordered by a cleaved granite walk that mimics the shape of the creek edge, effectively transposing the form of the creek itself onto the higher land. At the southern end of this path is a sculpture patio. The nine-foot-tall serpentine sculpture we designed is derived from the actual shape of the creek as it traverses the property.
The clients were deeply engaged in the design process and allowed us to raise the bar on finishes, landscaping, and details for this house. We designed a drop soffit of sheet bronze for the sections of the house with vaulted ceilings. The bronze reflects the adjacent exterior gardens during the day and adds a warm glow at night. We designed a unique, freestanding staircase with glass treads that becomes the centerpiece of the home’s circulation.
White cement panel siding was selected to brighten the deep shade under the oak canopy. Zinc standing-seam roofing and a custom wood window system fill out the palette of materials on the exterior. Natural stone, concrete, plaster, bronze, and dark hardwoods combine in a rich palette of color and texture in the home’s interior. A high level of design went into almost every interior detail and required the skills of many of the Bay Area’s finest craftspeople to execute successfully.
Heavy trucks and forklifts rumble along in front of this commercial infill site in west Berkeley. The building we envisioned would provide new offices for our firm and be a prominent visual presence at the transition from Emeryville to Berkeley. Sited at a bend in a heavily traveled industrial access road, this brightly colored building in an otherwise monochromatic landscape greets hundreds of vehicles daily. The neighborhood fabric is the intersection of older industrial structures with the rampant development of adjacent Emeryville. An early goal was to embrace the industrial neighborhood and allow the context to influence the design.
The building was conceived as slender and tall, a primarily wood-frame structure with exposed structural steel. The façade is clad with an alternating pattern of green and pale blue cement board siding, recalling the patterns of stacked shipping containers at the nearby Port of Oakland and the end grain of the pallets of wood at adjacent Ashby Lumber. The north wall, with zero setback, is a slab of weathered steel similar to the rusted artifacts found along the Berkeley waterfront.
Steel braced frames are revealed on the interior, where the space is a collage of materials and finishes. Translucent resin walls with embedded seaweed provide partial separations. The floor consists of panels of cement board with exposed fasteners. The stairway to the mezzanine level is a zigzag sheet of bent stainless steel reduced to its most minimal expression.
We had previously designed a home for these clients, a professional couple and their family, in the hills of the San Francisco Bay Area. This house, in its rural setting, was to be their weekend retreat. Together with the owners we made numerous visits to the site, pondering the house’s location and the question of how to achieve a design that accessed the views but wouldn’t scar the pristine land. The twenty-acre site overlooks the famous Napa Valley, the historic home of America’s wine-making industry. The rolling terrain is planted with grapes at the valley floor and studded with oak trees and rocky outcroppings at the ridges. The building site was almost solid rock.
The geometry of the site plan was rigorously centered between three large existing oak trees. From this center the plan winds along a rocky ledge, requiring almost no excavation or scarring of the land. Our design concept was to create ten distinct volumes, each with a different roofline and exterior skin. Originally the house was to be a rammed earth structure with a sod roof. That plan gave way to a more pragmatic wood-frame building, but the original forms remained. The process of moving through the house is not unlike hopping boulders as you traverse a talus; each space of the home, a distinct boulder, has its own geometry and specific orientation.
The house’s individual volumes are treated as simple, tight-skinned elements, each clad with cement plaster in a hue that matches the spring foliage or rock ledges, or metal siding that recalls the vernacular agrarian buildings on the valley floor. Interior detailing focuses on the articulation of the individual volumes. Mitered 90° glass windows are angled to catch the spectacular views of the valley below and San Francisco Bay on the horizon. The inglenook element serves as the main conversational area and is clad inside and out in Core-ten steel siding, with its natural rusted patina. To combat the bright glare and heat of the Napa summer, the inglenook has minimal fenestration. It is intended to promote intimate conversation, in the spirit of a gathering before the hearth of a country home.
On our first interview, I discovered the clients for this home, a professional couple, lived in a traditional red brick colonial. Initially perplexed, I soon realized they had chosen me because they envisioned their new home from the outset as a contemporary response to their land and the needs of their extended family.
The Strathmoor House is located on a gently sloped parcel in the area devastated by the 1991 Oakland firestorm. When we began the design process in 1996, the area was only partially rebuilt and remained studded with charred remnants of houses and landscaping. Our design needed to respond to effects from the few immediate neighbors who had rebuilt as well as the advancing redevelopment of the area.
The extended street frontage of the shallow site left the building area particularly exposed to the noise and view of passing vehicles and pedestrians on the uphill side. The initial design criteria required privacy from the street and attention to the western views of the San Francisco Bay. To establish privacy we introduced a curved shell wall, clad with cement board panels, that conforms to the street edge and presents an opaque textural surface. The shell wall is a study of carefully moderated transparency, both acoustic and visual, with minimal windows set on the module of the cement panels. The entry breaks through the wall, again a study in transparency with a combination of clear and translucent glass set in a steel frame. Above and behind this wall are two vaulted metal rooflines that hint at a dramatic interior volume. This is a home that has its back to the street; an opaque shell that, when opened, reveals a surprise of volume and transparency.
The entry sequence blurs the distinction between indoors and out. Rough cement plaster walls extend inside to become the walls of the entry volume. Envisioned as a space between the buildings, like an exterior plaza, the entry volume organizes the flow through the home. The experience of this “outdoor space” is enhanced and strengthened by building elements that address the space with raw finishes typical of building exteriors. Rough cement plaster, metal siding, stained concrete floors, and galvanized stairs all provide a seamless transition from the streetside entry through to the view side of the home and a two-story window wall opening to the garden. Facing south, this window wall shines daylight into the surrounding spaces and dramatically opens views to the San Francisco Bay. We tied the second-story living area to the ground floor and garden with a grand staircase that descends from the upper patio. Developing tension, even vertigo, circulation between the kitchen and outdoor patio is constrained to a narrow metal bridge of perforated steel. This bridge provides an unusual, suspended view back into the core of this hillside home.
Landscape design is by Topher Delaney
Lake Tahoe straddles the California-Nevada border and is considered by some to be one of the great wonders of the natural world. It is the largest alpine lake in North America and the second deepest. At 6220 feet above sea level, its water clarity is legendary. Although it is known as an international resort and was home to the 1960 Winter Olympics, building at the Lake has become highly restricted in recent years.
The Tahoe Ridge House is located on one of the last large parcels in the Tahoe area. Eight acres of land with dense stands of white pine and red fir slope upward to the rocky granite ridge crest that forms a backstop to this exceptional site. This was the second home we had designed for the clients, the first being the Strathmoor House (also in this book), so the usual period of getting acquainted had already taken place. Our design aesthetics and goals were aligned at the onset to conceive of a contemporary building uniquely rooted in the Tahoe area and the spectacular site.
Vernacular mining and stamp mill buildings in the Tahoe area inspired the design of this home. Long before Tahoe was a ski resort, it was a gold rush destination. Tall stamp mills were used to pulverize hard rock into fine silt from which the gold could be removed. All movement of material within the mill was achieved by gravity, hence the structures are characteristically elongated vertically.
Significant mountain vistas quickly became a key design consideration. Views of the mountains of Nevada to the north, to Tinker’s Knob, and to the Sierra crest to the south needed to be revealed. These criteria resulted in a floor plan that sprawls along two orthogonal axes and ascends vertically to the north to the study and master bedroom. The experience of flow along the axes is enhanced by a clear rhythm of ten-by-ten-inch recycled Douglas-fir structural posts that tie in with the roof framing above.
A mix of western red cedar and Galvalume metal siding applied as a tight skin pay further homage to the old mining buildings. On the interior of the home, large recycled timbers and heavy metal bracketing extend the industrial aesthetic and resist the substantial snow loads of winter. Large Sierra White granite blocks are carved and hewn to form the fireplace hearths. The building throughout is clearly rooted in and derived from its mountainous site. A large male black bear has lived in the boulders above the house for many years and is undaunted by recent construction, occasionally strolling unhurriedly down the new entry drive.
In the fall of 1991 a horrific firestorm swept over the hills of Oakland and Berkeley, destroying over three thousand homes and burning six thousand acres in one afternoon and evening. The affected cities decided to streamline the building process and allow residents to quickly reconstruct their homes and lives. Many fire victims chose to rebuild and others moved away and sold their land. This created a significant opportunity for local architects and builders to reconstruct these neighborhoods. The firestorm had left a clean slate for many.
The site we found in the fire area was to be a home for our family, and we too had a clean slate. Remnants of the foundation provided only minor clues to the house that had once been there. The denuded landscape had opened up previously obstructed views of the San Francisco Bay. For the first time, we intended to live in a home indefinitely, and we wanted to build something appropriate to the site that resonated with our personal aesthetics as well. I had become fascinated in the mid-1990s with the old industrial buildings of California’s Central Valley. Their grace and timelessness drew me on repeated, long drives into the valley, eventually resulting in the book Structures of Utility. For the Norfolk house, I envisioned a juxtaposition of these agrarian forms reaching westward—gesturing towards the bay view.
Conventional in plan, the house is unconventional in structure and form. Vaulted ceilings supported by exposed bowstring trusses are mixed with integrally colored rough plaster walls and unpainted wood surfaces. The living room is wrapped with a floor-to-ceiling window wall and a mitered glass corner to capture the magnificent bay and city views. The second-floor curvilinear balcony is delineated in bright purple to add an additional touch of visual excitement to an already dramatic space.
At the suggestion of landscape architect Topher Delaney, we made the entry sequence indirect, with the driveway entering from the side street. This approach created a protected entry court in the spirit of a European piazza. From the court up to the house is a cascading stair, its landings reinforced by wood and steel trellis elements.
The Vicente house is located in the east bay hills. A combination of site walls, trellis and a carefully planned entry progression creates a secluded courtyard design on the narrow site.
Landscape design is by Topher Delaney