For Ariel Englander, it was love at first sight. The art dealer and gallery director had flown in from the East Coast to look at a Mill Valley home she and her husband, Peter, had just signed a contract to purchase, sight unseen. It wouldn’t be the home she would fall in love with, though.
She would find her dream property later on a serendipitous jog the day before she returned home, one that took her to the end of a sunny cul-de-sac with a gorgeous view of Panoramic Ridge.
“I stopped to look at the view and when I turned around, I saw the “for sale” sign on this little cinder-block building,” she says. “It just had an amazing feeling, like it was a tree house in the redwoods, but without being in the dark. I fell in love with it immediately.”
“It all started to sound very familiar,” says Peter Englander, describing how his wife described her fabulous find to him by telephone. That’s because only a few months earlier he had found the same house
online. Its privacy and location had appealed to him, but its small building pad and steep slope held no appeal for his local real estate agent, who dissuaded him from buying it.
The next day, before Ariel’s plane had even touched down, her husband had purchased the property.
Making Mill Valley home
Peter Englander has developed an appreciation for special properties. He spent three years on the East Coast as a builder for a real estate company before launching his own award-winning luxury home company, Box Canyon Builders, in Telluride, which he now operates in Mill Valley. The couple’s time there was supposed to be brief, “just until Ariel and I got skiing out of our system,” he says, but the birth of their two children and the success of his company kept them rooted in the Rockies for a decade.
They finally made it to Mill Valley, their ultimate destination, but not until he “got an offer I couldn’t refuse” building mansions in Greenwich, Connecticut, for four years. After completing that project, he began looking online for a home in Mill Valley. “I just like Mill Valley—the weather, the light, the feeling of being at the base of Mount Tam, the proximity to Stinson Beach and the city,” he says. “It’s a town I can hang out in.”
He chose Mill Valley architect Francis Gough to create a design replacing the existing 800-square-foot one-bedroom one-bath dwelling with a 2,500-square-foot two-story, four-bedroom, four-bath modern-style home.
“It’s a very steep lot and it crosses the slope from side to side rather than front to rear, so it was challenging,” Gough says. “But the opportunity was there to create a building with an almost tree-house-like effect. It’s just a rectangle, a simple concept really, but very well executed. It fit all the zoning requirements with no variances.” The design was so harmonious that both the neighbors and the city embraced it immediately.
“As a builder, especially a builder doing my own house, I had my own ideas,” says Englander, “but from a design standpoint, the mass, the scale, the windows and how it worked on site, that’s Francis. He’s a really smart, talented designer who doesn’t force his will on you and he’s really knowledgable about local codes and the approval process.”
Englander may have built mansions for others, but he wanted his home to be smaller. “Personally, I don’t feel the need to have more of a house than we require,” he says. “It’s easier to maintain and doesn’t use a lot of energy.” His wife likes the size, too: “I can cook, Peter can read the newspaper and the kids can do their homework all in the same space.”
He did want an efficient open plan for the main floor, with lots of volume, high ceilings and minimal reliance on circulation space; there’s only one staircase and a small hall. A tall wall of rolling glass doors “borrows” space from the outdoors to give Ariel the “tree house” feeling she’d liked so much.
To keep the interior space fluid, the rectangular shape of the house and exterior siding is subtly repeated in the interior flooring, hardware, and lighting; the top lines of the built-in cabinetry reflect the lines of the windows.
A mudroom near the front door conveniently collects personal belongings, keeping the living areas clutter-free, and the kitchen is designed not to look like one. “I built it so it was more like a living room,” Englander says.
Appliances and a recycling center are integrated behind furniture-style wood cabinetry; the cooktop is low profile and the hood is recessed into the soffit. The metallic wall tiles seamlessly refer to the exposed foundation wall and the living room’s golden Venetian plaster refers back to the tiles.
Peter Englander’s office in the rear, overlooking a wooded glen, takes concealment to yet another level; the entry door is disguised as a swing-away bookcase.
Upstairs, visitors stay in a guest room that doubles as a media room and the children have a bedroom on either side of a Jack-and-Jill bathroom. The master suite includes a private balcony that provides a view of the fog rolling in over Panoramic Ridge; separate dressing areas; and his-and-hers bathrooms clad in a honey-colored onyx, with a shared walk-in shower. The room is a favorite room of Ariel’s; “it feels like a little spa,” she notes.
Steeped in green
“There are a lot of things that can be done simply to make a house green,” Gough says, and this house took advantage of enough of them to qualify for the highest LEED-certified rating of platinum.
One dramatic green feature is the exposed, hand-finished concrete foundation that forms the rear wall of the kitchen. It gives the house a very cool industrial look while requiring no additional surface materials. The roof and floor systems are made of engineered lumber; the siding, deck, and exterior doors and windows are clad in Forest Stewardship Council–certified western red cedar, while the inside doors, windows, trim and cabinetry are made of FSC-certified vertical-grain Douglas fir.
Because the north side of the house is built into the hill, an even temperature is maintained, eliminating the need for ductwork, fans and air conditioning. Other environmental pluses are an Energy Star roof and appliances, compact fluorescent lights and lights on dimmer switches, upgraded insulation, insulation-compatible recessed lighting fixtures, bamboo floors, EcoResin and Vetrazzo countertops, radiant floor heating, low-VOC finishes, a hot water recirculation pump and a high-efficiency boiler.
Outside, Englander designed an eco-friendly garden. No irrigation is needed for the deer-resistant, poor-soil-tolerant plantings, and there was minimal disturbance of existing plants. “I limited my choices to what would grow here with no help and even built around two oaks,” he says. These grow through cutaways in both the deck and the overhang, which can be expanded as the trees age.
The Englanders plan to age here, too. “Peter’s built some projects for us in the past but they always ended up [being] for someone else.This is supposed to be our last house,” Ariel says with a laugh. “This one’s for us, and there’s nothing middle-of-the-road about it.”
Image 2: Wall of glass separates the living area from outdoor deck.
Image 3: The master bathroom has a unique design with separate closets and bathrooms for Peter and Ariel incorporating a large glass- enclosed shower as the common shared element.
Image 4: Powder room with sink created from granite set on a slab of tumbled flagstone.