Unlike many modern subdivisions with fanciful names, Lafayette Woodlands is an apt description of this forested suburb inland from the San Francisco Bay Area. Its roads wind among dense oaks and Midcentury houses, many of them untouched since they were first built. Houses of that era inevitably include split-levels, and that’s what ODS Architecture was facing when asked to do a top-to-bottom remodel of this home, for a graphic designer and a kindergarten teacher with three children. For all its built-in awkwardness, however, the house and its sloping lot presented some golden redesign opportunities. While the architects made several major design moves—the renovation added 700 square feet—it’s a fine example of how incremental changes can transform an entire house.
From the street, in fact, the form still looks familiar, though its roofline has been altered and the entry is more graceful and contemporary. Passersby would certainly notice the refresh, but it’s the interiors and their relationship with the outdoors that make it feel like a new house. “The original struggle was that their vision was big, but the budget was not,” says architect Philip Liang. “We thought, they have this beautiful lot, and given this budget, let’s hit the high points to get the drama.”
So much about remodeling a home of almost any vintage or ilk is opening it to light and the outdoors, and that’s where these efforts began. Splits have a familiar floor plan, often with the single-story main living spaces on the entry level and the bedrooms under a separate roof volume a half-flight up. This house sits on a slope, with the front door at the midpoint along the slope and a garage below at the back of the house.
In perhaps its most transformative move, raising the lower roof to meet the higher roof resulted in 10-foot-tall ceilings over the kitchen, dining, and living areas. The second game changer was to enlarge the kitchen by filling out a corner where the old roof had extended over a deck. By removing a few interior walls in the L-shaped floor plan, the relocated kitchen became a hinge between the family room and living room, both of which had existing fireplaces. Upstairs, the bedrooms received all-new surfaces while retaining their general location. And at ground level, under the new kitchen, the architects added a large home office, bath, and laundry room, partially excavating the crawl space next to the garage.
To get the job done, builder Jeff Barnett and his crew started almost from scratch on the lower volume. “The structure had settled and was off 3-4 inches on the front corner, initiating a reconstruction,” he says. “That’s common for Lafayette. We did a lot of underpinning and piers. And because some of the bearing walls were removed, we used steel for spanning to support the roof system.”
With the floor plan sorted, the architects connected the rooms visually and physically to the wooded site. “We were trying to bring the exterior’s value into the house by creating lots of indoor-outdoor connections and points of view,” Philip says. “What do you see from one end of the hall, what do you see when you get to a window, and when you enter a room?” In addition to the higher ceiling, wall-height aluminum-framed windows make the living room and dining room feel like they’re floating in the trees, and a wall of lift-slide doors leads from the kitchen and family room to a large outdoor deck. New sight lines through the house also connect the rooms internally and conduct natural light through strategically placed skylights.
“There were a lot of little moves that added up,” says project architect Julia Arria. “We tried to be budget conscious and keep some major elements in place.” The stairway that ascends from the garage was framed in and opened to the living zone above. A large skylight over the stairs scoops light not only into the stairwell but also into the dining room through a wall-height interior window overlooking the stairs. Beside it, an antiqued mirror in the custom walnut bar cabinet reflects light from the window wall opposite, increasing the sense of transparency.
These surgical cutouts continued upstairs. The architects made use of the existing roof’s overhang to bump out a window seat in the primary bedroom. And moving the laundry to the garage level made room for a skylit walk-in closet and a bath. The shower wall is clad in deep-turquoise clay tiles that extend up into the skylight. The design team also added an exterior door for access to a future hot tub.
The new kids’ bath is divided into two zones, one for a trough sink with two faucets, and the other containing a tub and shower. Indirect light pours in through a slot above the vanity, and a pattern of handcrafted, glossy yellow tiles in the tub area echoes the jade-green, 3D wall tiles in the kitchen.
“We wanted to make sure everything was kid-friendly and durable, not too fancy,” Julia says. At the same time, “the house has a lot of character that shows who they are—a fun, artistic couple. They get a lot of credit for the tile selections.” The more formal of the two living rooms, to the right inside the front door, contains a fireplace surround of black brick tiles laid in a stacked bond pattern. The mantel’s lipped metal ledge turns a corner and continues across the back wall, providing a shelf for rotating artwork. The family room fireplace received a more playful treatment with 3D matte oval tiles reaching to the ceiling. “We had to design the fireplace wall around the tile because we couldn’t cut them,” Julia says. Throughout, quartz countertops, white oak floors, and plain sawn, vertical-grain walnut and white oak cabinetry tie the spaces together.
Open and dynamic, the husband’s new garage-level office was fitted with large windows and an exterior door. It was designed to accommodate a potential future employee, and with the attached full bath, the space could someday serve as in-law quarters. Conveniently, a dumbwaiter ferries groceries from the garage to the kitchen.
Wanting to fully experience their half-acre property, the owners had wisely earmarked a healthy portion of the budget for landscape improvements. Given the high risk of wildfires, several large trees growing against the house were removed, making room for a new lighted pathway and switchback stairs. Solid concrete with cedar side walls, they feel like an extension of the house.
So does the new dining deck outside the family room, which steps down to a circular seating area around a firepit, and to pathways that circulate around the house. Replacing a tall retaining wall with two stepped shorter ones carved out additional space near the house and allowed the family to navigate the hillside more easily. As a finishing touch, Cor-Ten steel planter boxes soften the lines between the house and grounds. “It’s a good example of the landscape really elevating the house,” Philip says.
In keeping with its sleeker profile, the house was horizontally clad in western red cedar, and stucco accents around the windows and on the chimney to break up the boxy geometry. Most important, the unvented, stucco-covered soffits will keep out burning embers if wildfires sweep through.
With its fluid, light-filled spaces—quite a feat in a forest setting—the design adds a new dimension that reconnects the family to nature. Midcentury yet modern, thoughtful yet whimsical, it subscribes only to the mandate to make something beautiful.
Architect: Alan Ohashi, AIA, principal in charge; Philip Liang, design director; Julia Arria, project architect, ODS Architecture, Emeryville, California
Builder: Jeff Barrett, Blueline Custom Builders, Pleasant Hill, California
Interior designer: ODS Architecture
Landscape architect: Huettl Landscape Architecture, Walnut Creek, California
Project size: 3,847 square feet
Site size: 0.5 acre
Construction cost: Withheld
Photography: Dreamside Design
Cabinetry: Blueline Builders custom
Cooking vent hood: Zephyr
Exterior cladding: Western red cedar, stucco
Entry doors/Windows: Fleetwood
Faucets: Franke, Hansgrohe, Watermark
Paints/stains: Benjamin Moore
Sinks: Kohler, Lacava
Tile: Heath Ceramics, Fireclay
Tubs: MTI Baths