Notebook: Programmatic Redesign

by Kacey Larsen

The trick with designing a remodel is to know how far to go. Architects, builders and contractors all face this when given the challenge of trying to meet a client’s expectations on a budget. If you try to change too much, you run the risk of spreading your efforts (and your remodeling dollars) too thin. Conversely, if you set your sights too low, your efforts may seem wasted because you may not get the impact you were hoping for. In the case of the Bridge House, we opted to focus our energies in the middle portion of the house in order to get the most things done on our redesign wishlist. The name Bridge House emerged as we began to work on the project.

The original house lacked an entrance and a focus when seen from the entry road below. To remedy the problem, we used an A-B-A rhythm to define the composition of the front of the house. The B in our version of the A-B-A rhythm stands for bridge—a bridge that connects the house to its sloping site. It also connects the two existing wings of the house while connecting the upper and lower floors. We also thought of it metaphorically since the bridge is the place in the house where you can look back across the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco, where the homeowners both work.

Bruce Damonte Photography

Bruce Damonte Photography

The house is located in Marin, California, north of San Francisco on a hill overlooking the Bay with views to Mount Tamalpais. Originally built in the 1970s, the house required a major renovation to fit the needs of a young couple with a growing family. Situated on a dramatically sloping hill, the home’s original floor plan did not reflect the nature of its surroundings. It was a single story house that seemed to turn its back on the views and deny that it was built on a slope. The home’s original entrance was situated on the back and up a set of stairs. One had to walk around the house and up the stairs to the second floor to enter the home. Access to the lower level playroom and living spaces below was through a narrow, circular stairway. We were tasked with reprogramming the floor plan to improve traffic flow and to increase accessibility and communication between living spaces throughout the house. The main living area was also opened up to take advantage of the stunning views, a feature that hadn’t previously been exploited.

Functionality and flow were at the heart of the programmatic redesign. The circular staircase and second-floor entrance were removed, and a new entryway and foyer were installed on the side of the first story of the home, making the ground floor accessible from the main entrance for the first time in the home’s history. The first-floor foyer pulls materials from the exterior deep into the entry. Brazilian ipe wood and stone detailing in the foyer extend the exterior motif indoors. A staircase with a skylight above leads from the entry to the upper-level living room and out to a deck with mountain views, previously blocked by a hallway. A large, folding glass door system extends the interior living space out to a deck while an ipe wood trellis overhead provides sun shading. The indoor-outdoor theme extends to the kitchen, with a second folding glass door system leading out to the rear yard. When opened simultaneously, the operable wall systems create an energy-efficient breezeway that helps to cool the living spaces while allowing the homeowners to fully enjoy the stunning, iconic views to the east and west.

A select palette of materials for the exterior and interior were chosen for their combined ability to be aesthetically appealing, easy to maintain, functional and affordable. The stepped central portion of the house is clad in an Ipe wood rain screen and contains the large public spaces. A lower level houses a large entertainment room with views of the surrounding hillside. The side wings, containing bedrooms and dining, are clad in integral colored stucco. Horizontal stacked slate is used throughout the exterior of the house as accents below windows and is featured at the entry and foyer on the walls, as well as the floor. Cherry veneer used on the cabinetry is complemented by Cumaru flooring, which was chosen for its ability to match the color and grain of the Ipe used on the exterior.

Bruce Damonte Photography

Bruce Damonte Photography

Sustainability was high on the priority list in order to bring the home in line with today’s energy usage expectations. We added solar panels to the middle/bridge portion of the home to cover the majority of electricity needs. Plumbing lines were also installed for solar hot water to further reduce energy consumption. The house was outfitted with energy-efficient windows, glass doors and skylights throughout that eliminate the need for interior lighting during daylight hours. The low-E coating on the windows also reduces the solar heat gain while admitting visible light. The entire home was thoroughly insulated beyond the local and state requirements. The location of exterior cladding was also considered. South-facing spaces used during the day are clad in an Ipe wood rain screen that effectively acts as a heat shield from the mid-day sun. The Ipe wood trellis above the folded glass door system in the living room was designed with southern sun angles in mind to shield the glass during the summer, but also allow for solar heating during the winter. The east- and west-facing spaces are clad in stucco, acting as a delayed heat sink absorbing heat during the day and releasing it during the night. This works extremely well—the house is comfortable year-round without air conditioning and relatively little heating, with the owners regularly opening the entire living room wall, even on (sunny) winter days.

Through the well-coordinated effort of architect, owner and general contractor, we were able to strike the right balance of not biting off too much or too little. Knowing where to focus our efforts and agreeing on our priorities as a team allowed us to a build a bridge to success and not a bridge too far. |QR

Visible Research Office is a San Francisco-based, award-winning firm providing architecture and interior design services. Principal Mark Donohue, AIA, is a licensed architect who has been involved with the design and building of residential, commercial and institutional projects for more than 25 years. VRO is dedicated to researching new fabrication techniques as well as the use of innovative materials in construction. Founded in 2003, VRO is gaining a reputation for thoughtful and provocative work.

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