SOME PEOPLE ARE wired to like a challenge. Take, for instance, the owners of this modern home in the Kent Woodlands hills. They met through their work in San Francisco’s tech industry in 2011 and decided to move in together in 2013. She already owned a quaint Victorian in San Francisco and he owned a house on the Peninsula. But instead of testing the waters by moving into a rental together, they crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, bought this house and undertook a massive renovation.
“We bought this home to start our ‘we life’ together,” he says, “but the remodel was a huge test of our relationship.” She’s more of pragmatist and he’s more of an idealist. So there was occasional friction as they spent weekends visiting tile stores, examining countertop materials and selecting hardwood floors.
Yet the yin/yang of the relationship yielded beautiful results: a warm and arresting modern home that celebrates the landscape upon which it sits.
The house was not always that way. “It was a midcentury modern,” she says, “but not the cool midcentury modern. It had wings that were added over time, and it looked very plain.” The layout “looked like two shipping containers,” he says. When the couple first saw the home, it had a board-and-batten wood exterior of a drab olive color. A huge asphalt parking area consumed the front yard, and although you could see Mount Diablo and the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge through floor-to-ceiling windows on the southeast side, the house did not take advantage of its 360-degree views.
Luckily, he, in particular, was looking for a project. He’d grown up in Sonoma and longed to be back in the North Bay, partly to be closer to his aging mother. But he also considers himself “a closet architect,” interested in all elements of design, from choosing materials to drafting plans. The house, he thought, would be a chance to indulge his inner designer.
After the couple moved in, they lived in the house for a year to get a feel for the property. They started interviewing architects near the end of that year and knew they’d found their guy when Alan Ohashi of Emeryville’s ODS Architecture gave his frank assessment: “The house looks like a dental office, with a big parking lot for all the patients.”
The couple agreed, telling him they wanted a warm, modern home, Ohashi’s specialty. Also, they hoped to accomplish this by making modest improvements. “But as the project progressed,” Ohashi says, “the scope got bigger and bigger and more ambitious.”
Besides opening up the house to take greater advantage of the views, the owners also hoped the place would better suit how they lived. After busy workweeks, he loved to hang out on a comfortable couch, watch sports and have a beer, surrounded by nature. She loved to cook. They both liked to entertain.
Bored at a business meeting in Washington, D.C., he drew a three-dimensional picture of the house on a piece of binder paper, solving many of the home’s problems by raising the roofline. Back in the Bay Area, he handed the drawing to Ohashi and ODS’s design director, Philip Liang.
The architects drew up plans, raising the roof by 42 inches and adding clerestory windows along the upper rim of the house to maximize sunlight. To augment the views through the southeast windows, they added floor-to-ceiling glass on the northwest side, mostly in the game room, looking out on Mount Baldy and the grove of heritage oaks that line the property. “That was a big part of this project,” Liang says, “to see the trees kind of rise all around and to create opportunities for light to come in.”
The owners decided to keep the footprint of the home, adding only a few hundred square feet to the game room. “We didn’t want to blow everything away, because the budget could easily escalate,” he says. In May 2014, they moved out, thinking the remodel would take 14 months. It ended up taking more than two years.
One of the biggest renovation challenges was taking an existing home and essentially creating a glass house, says the builder, Dan Nowell of Eden Roc Co. Where walls had stood, he had to install steel moment frames, superstructures that allow large openings to be created with glass. “It would have been easier to tear the house down and start anew,” Nowell reflects.
The remodel became more of a collaboration as the owners continued to refine their vision. He was driving by a bank in Mill Valley one day, for example, and admired the metal fascia on the building, deciding it would be perfect for the exterior of their home. “I called Philip and I said, ‘I really want this,’ ” he recalls.
The architects set to work replicating the fascia — now an assertive band of aluminum composite that surrounds the top of the home’s exterior — but the owners’ input often delayed the schedule. “I think if we were to go back, a big change we would have made was selecting all the materials before starting construction,” she says. “That’s where we got into some trouble.”
During the remodel they also decided to move the dining room, originally adjacent to the kitchen and separated from the living room area by a two-foot-thick divider, so the new owner wouldn’t have to be separated from family and friends while she cooked. Relocating the dining area to the other side of the divider, they created an inviting family room next to the kitchen, with a 75-inch television and a curved Della Robbia couch for hanging out.
That process brought a major upgrade to the room divider that now separates the family and dining rooms: originally a plaster structure over a stone fireplace, it was replaced with a minimalist slit of a fireplace, embedded in lava rock and topped with an asymmetrical pattern of sapele wood. It feels like a piece of art and is accented by a modern chandelier made of 29 glass balls descending from various heights from the ceiling.
It is nature, however, that ultimately takes center stage. Just outside the seating area in the living room is a Zen garden designed by San Rafael’s Pedersen Associates, with a stone water fountain and drought tolerant plants. A few steps down, in the newly hardscaped backyard, a succulent garden bursts with color from echeveria, aloe and crassula.
The architects and landscape architects also redesigned the front yard, creating a warmer-looking entry. The “stars of the show,” Pete Pedersen says, are two 150-year-old olive trees from the Central Valley that now flank the driveway. New front yard plantings — asparagus fern, Cape rush, Berkeley sedge — echo the architecture, with clean, simple lines.
One aspect the owners love about the home is that it’s “see-through.” The full-length windows of the kitchen/family room look straight across the entryway to those of the game room, where the new man of the house most frequently hangs out. That’s partly because it’s so comfortable, with its TV, leather couch, wet bar and pool table, but he also likes the room’s design. One side is all glass doors opening to a patio and bocce court, plus views of the oaks and Mount Baldy. A rough stone wall — also an exterior wall — stands in the back of the room; in the front is a fireplace, the owner’s favorite feature of the house.
In fact, he spent countless hours thinking of ideas for this fireplace, before asking San Francisco artist Mike Danielson to make it of scrap metal, pockmarked by saltwater erosion, from an old 1920s ship in Seattle. It’s a nice artistic flourish for this stylish man cave.
It’s also emblematic of how the couple worked together. He dove deep on the details; she wanted decisions to be made. “We spent a lot of time on the house. Maybe too much,” he says, “but we’re better for it now. We communicate better and we understand each other better too.” Their reward for living through the renovations, even as they started their “we life” together, is a serene home that feels as if it’s in conversation with the views and the trees. “Now,” she says, “we think of this as our retreat.”The Remodeling of a Whole House