An Urban Edge

Marin County has so many charms – the appeal of small-town living, an abundance of good schools, an array of natural and artistic attractions —that one might be hard-pressed to think that this beneficent backdrop requires anything else. For a growing number of people, though, the softness of suburbia could use a little edge, and for these urban-surburbanites, paradise is getting a little hipper.

Dominic Spaethling was reared in a Victorian home in Cambridge, Massachusetts; his wife, Robin Steele, grew up in a ranch-style home in the suburbs of Seattle. But when the couple moved to Marin, they chose to build a modern home.

“We’d been living in downtown Philadelphia,” Robin says. “It’s an affordable city that has lots of art, but once you have kids, you want them to be in a good school district.” 

While that was important to both of them, Dominic admits, “we loved the big spaces, the airiness, the exposed bricks and beams of the warehouses in Philadelphia that were being turned into apartments and we just couldn’t leave those parts behind.”  

Fortunately, their San Francisco architect, Aleck Wilson, shares their affinity for loftlike spaces: “I like the idea that suburban homes don’t have to be cookie-cutter or ‘spec’ homes, that they can have large volumes and open floor plans and a more contemporary arrangement of space,” Wilson says. In other words, flexible spaces with merged multifunctional rooms such as breakfast and dining rooms or family and living rooms.

He specified materials aligned more with industrial use than residential for the 2,100-square-foot home: corrugated metal siding, a shed roof, a concrete wall and a concrete dining room floor, an exposed ceiling, and opposing glass roll-up garage doors that open onto patios. 

Three Bar House

“Kids come to visit and say, ‘Cool! Do you park your cars in here?” Robin laughs. They don’t, but their daughters use the space for Rollerblading and, on warm days, the dining table is rolled out onto the patio for alfresco dining.

Their house doesn’t look typical for their Larkspur neighborhood, and that was deliberate. “Designing a house can be an intimidating. One might play it safe, do what fits in, what’s always been done, but we educated ourselves on design so much that we really came to know what we wanted.”

And what they wanted was a modern-style house with sustainable and energy-efficient features. “Why would we choose to design a Victorian that’s supposed to look 100 years old?” she asks rhetorically.  Wilson, their architect, thinks a modern style home makes sense, too.  “Our tastes have gently changed over time,” he says.  “The whole Bay Area is more accepting of contemporary architecture.”

Now, reflecting upon how her house satisfies her craving for the urban aesthetic, Robin says, “Southern Marin doesn’t feel like suburbia—it’s so close to the city—but it’s liberating to live in a space that isn’t so detailed or decorated. It feels right living in this house in this spot.”

The house elicits praise from her husband, also, who loves “the drama of it—the ridiculously high ceilings, the big windows, the raw materials—those elements that make it fun in a nontraditional way.  I still get that ‘whoa!’ feeling whenever I walk in. It’s an exciting place to come home to every night.”

Architect Aleck Wilson Architects 
Structural Engineer Morris Engineering

The Ridge House

The Ridge House, situated on a beautiful hilltop in Mill Valley blessed with breathtaking views, was commissioned in 2002 by Tony and Rachel Sherman after they saw a New York Times story featuring a home designed by Los Angeles architect Lorcan O’Herlihy. 

“It was exactly what I was thinking of,” Tony says.  “I tried to explain it to five or six ‘modern’ architects up here but then I thought, ‘why not just call the architect in the story?’  I did and he came up the next week. It was a great decision!”

Sherman, who had lived in San Francisco’s Cole Valley for 10 years, moved to Marin with Rachel after they were married and had decided to have children. They were attracted to Marin’s desirable public school system and the area’s natural beauty. 

Unlike the owners of the Three Bar House, the Shermans didn’t want to transplant urban living into a suburban setting, but rather to live between the two worlds. 

“We actually avoided using industrial materials like concrete and metal,” Tony says, pointing out that even the supporting steel was clad in mahogany. “Our real goal was to take advantage of the site and the views of the ocean, the city, the bay, the Bay Bridge, and we wanted the house to emulate the rolling hills and surrounding colors. So, even though it’s modern, the intent was for it to blend in.”

The four-bedroom home, just under 4,000 square feet and cantilevered above a steep slope, has soaring spaces, large expanses of windows, and a wealth of wood. The interior choices are special to the owners: an Italian kitchen by Poliform, custom bedroom furnishings and photographs by local artists Markham Johnson and Rick Chapman.

Since its completion, the house has won a 2007 AIA award, has been recognized in Architectural Record, and has been featured in numerous print commercials and a shelter magazine.

This appreciation of his home doesn’t surprise Tony.  “I like it more and more all the time. Every time I come home and see it, I feel blessed to have built it and to own and live in such a work of art and architecture.”

Besides, he adds, “the location is pretty amazing. It’s only 10 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge but it borders a national forest. We have space and land, we’re close to the ocean and the mountains (for mountain biking) and yet we’re close to the city. It’s a unique urban-surburban.”

Architect Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects
Contractor Lawrence Motta
Interior Designer Lorcan O’Herlihy & Tony Sherman
Landscape Architect Tyler Schwartz
Landscape Contractor Cliff Murata

The Box House

Ryan and Christine McGuinness can’t claim any urban provenance— they both grew up in Marin— but they are frequent travelers and both appreciate the urban lifestyle and the modern aesthetic.

When he was growing up in Marin, “the focus was always on San Francisco, so as a family we spent a lot of time in the city,” Ryan says. “This house is a reflection of being in the comfort and beauty of Marin and still being tied to the city.”

Designed by Michael Mitchell, a Stinson Beach–based architect and McGuinness relative, it has a loftlike airiness inside; large aluminum storefront windows that draw in natural light and frame views; separate sleeping wings for adults and children, for privacy; and eco-friendly features for energy efficiency.

Ironically, although the 1,800-square-foot Tiburon home resembles a set of elegant boxes, it lacks the “boxed-in” feeling of the McGuinnesses previous homes. “We like open floor plans,” says Ryan. “Our front room is a wide space that makes it nice for family gatherings. There are lots of us around.” (Both he and Christine grew up in large families—he had 10 siblings; she had 9—and their extended family lives locally.)

Even if that weren’t the case, he says, the home’s large open spaces keep his own immediate family of five close to each other. “It facilitates togetherness and that’s hard to get from a structure that compartmentalizes everything. We weren’t interested in fragmented spaces.”

Mitchell didn’t plan the house with any bent toward being “urban.” Instead, he says, the goal was just smart planning, “nicely solving many design criteria for a wonderful home. The flat roof maximizes the volumes within a single-story home so you can really get those windows up high. And the roof also affords a great opportunity to capture light, views and a sense of openness.” 

Although modern, the home is not defined by starkness but by warmth and depth, a natural result of purposefully chosen materials. In the kitchen, for example, stainless-steel appliances and black marble countertops are offset by hardwood floors and blond maple cabinetry. Outside, the home’s sleek lines are softened by Alaskan yellow cedar and a landscape of primarily native plants.

For Mitchell, it doesn’t matter if the house is perceived as urban.  “I was just looking for something that would be timeless, that would look good now and 50 years from now. When she’s weathered, you won’t even be able to know when she was built, just that she was built well.”

Architect Michael Mitchell Building Design & Drafting
Structural Engineer Erik B. Tryde
Contractor Justin Construction
Cabinetry Bruce Binder Construction