A couple with three young boys in San Francisco desired large, illuminated central spaces where family and friends would enjoy spending time together. They also wanted the core of their house to act as a welcoming area that gave the children freedom to be themselves but kept adults within earshot—if not always eyeshot—to adjudicate and apply basic medical direction when necessary.
“They came to us with this vision of creating an essential core [in their home] to keep the family together and not have long hallways and [separate] bedrooms where the kids can hide away into their corners once they enter their teenage years,” says Taisuke Ikegami, one of four partners at Feldman Architecture. “These were things they had clearly thought through as lifestyle choices.”
The wife, a doctor who tapped into her design background, brought several ideas to the table that the firm would have proposed, Ikegami adds. She suggested a tall, loft-like space for the nucleus of the house, for example, and expressed an interest in a green rooftop to provide sustainability. The collaboration between the clients and Feldman ultimately produced an award-winning whole-home renovation.
Open for business
The firm presented a range of options based on conversation with the homeowners, and some of the more atypical ideas aimed to arouse their imagination. Their favorable response to the novel concepts revealed a common design sensibility between the two parties, Ikegami says, and from that point the discussion leader as well as the originator of subsequent visions became less clear.
“Oftentimes it’s the architect who is taking a risk in showing fun ideas to see how the client will react—because you don’t want to be too unconventional or drastic,” explains Ikegami, who says most clients politely decline the unusual suggestions. “You want to figure out what their comfort zone is. With this [job], any time we proposed a fun idea, they were ready to double down on it.”
For example, the husband sought an anomalous space within the house where he could retreat in the late evenings to focus on his creative work. This request progressed to constructing a floating office pod above the atrium, at the top of a diagonal stair that leads up to the roof deck. Ideas for the isolated area included a spaceship that had just landed and a baseball crashing into the home.
“He does a lot of work late in the evenings when his creative juices are flowing, so he needed a space that was away from the family where he can crank up his music and turn on his TV,” Ikegami says. “They were fully on the ride with us and were [always] encouraging us and throwing [out] some ideas of their own to fuel our imagination, too, so that was really fun.”
Many of the entertaining notions informed overall design strategies, such as the sunken-in office pod, which allowed the firm to construct a vertical front façade and keep the house in scale with the rest of the neighborhood. The home next door submitted a decidedly modern remodel during the beginning stages of this project, Ikegami says, but the local council refused to approve the plans.
“If you look at it from the rear, it almost reads like a two-story building with a sort of mezzanine on the top of it. Playing with these massings and how they interact with two-story volumes, and how that relates to the front façade, those were all strategies and design solutions,” Ikegami adds. “It was a cakewalk in terms of getting planning approval, which can be a challenge in this area.”
Let there be light
Delivering natural light into the belly of a house represents the biggest design hurdle in an urban infill project, Ikegami explains. The longest façades—on the side of a home—run along lot lines and cannot contain windows, leaving the front and back as the only possible sources. Usually the firm will carve out a vertical stair shaft with a skylight in the middle of the house.
“In this case that core wasn’t just a stair shaft, it was a tall two-story volume, practically a three-story volume. That really allowed us to bring in light in a way that was way more effective than we typically can,” Ikegami says. “And a lot more spaces benefited from it; usually, there’s only one or two spaces adjoining the stair that can benefit from diffused light coming down from above.”
The metal-screened stair climbs from the street-level entry to the main floor, where a great room merges the kitchen with the dining area and living room. Nooks and innovative storage solutions enable the great room—a place for cooking, eating, working and playing—to serve as the hub of the home without clutter. The living room flows out onto a deck and into the elongated backyard.
From the main level, the stair ascends to a catwalk that circles the atrium, connecting the master bedroom and the kids’ bedroom. A diagonal stair extends from the catwalk to the floating office pod and out to the roof deck. Sunlight streams through one side of the atrium in the morning and filters through the other side in the afternoon, peeking around each edge of the rim before setting.
The three-story atrium, which features clerestory windows and an east-facing light monitor, also controls occupant comfort through natural and stack ventilation. On top of the house, an array of photovoltaics helps offset overall energy usage, and a planted roof mitigates peak runoff and prefilters stormwater, contributing to better thermal performance and adding invaluable green space.
“You try to maximize the roof surface for the solar panels, and the green roof was something that we thought would be great,” Ikegami explains. “She also had this idea for rooftop gardening, and in her mind it was more like veggies, but we found a way to integrate a green area with [drought-resistant plants and sedums] that worked well with the [roof] design and had sustainable impact.”
Making the most of it
Although they know space in the city remains a luxury, the clients asked for an open, communal living area as opposed to packing in extra bedrooms or bathrooms. Today, the kids only sleep in their bedroom—the family prefers to live together, in shared spaces, at the center of the home, which accurately reflects their active lifestyle and playful personality with its Lego-laden charm.
“It was very evident that we succeeded in this project the day they moved in. It was like a house that they had lived in for years. It just fit them well stylistically. To me, that’s a true measure of success when we do these projects,” Ikegami says. “Our job is not just to design something, but to improve the client’s daily lives and the environment [in which] they carry on their daily lives.”
The mother can call up through the atrium to any room in the house or downstairs to the family den, where cartoons of baseball parks line the wall. From her “command station” in the kitchen, she stays visually and audibly connected to the family. The father presides over all activity from the quiet, removed perch of his floating office pod, which provides an acoustically separated area.
He had purchased a swing for his wife and intended to install the anniversary gift in their cottage back east, but once she received the present, they immediately knew the swing belonged in their remodeled home. The firm had discussed with them various games the kids could play within the atrium, such as dropping a ball down multiple floors or throwing one up to somebody on a higher level.
“We always had this idea that the central core was a space where it was going to be very active, a space that can absorb the energy of a family life with active kids, so we talked about the different games the kids would be playing by using this vertical space,” Ikegami says. “The fact the swing ended up fitting in as if it was part of the original concept just speaks to the [thoughtful] design.” | QR