Some of the worst houses occupy the best sites. This hilltop location in California’s Marin County doesn’t just have a mountain view, it looks out on Mount Tamalpais, where the sport of mountain biking was first invented. It also takes in views of San Francisco Bay, San Quentin, and the Richmond Bridge. Breathtaking. Too bad the original house on the site looked like a dental clinic in a strip mall.
The “before” house resembled a small office park.
In some parts of the country, there would have been no question that the existing house should come down. But in Northern California, there are many advantages to remodeling. Permit approvals are often faster and less complicated; codes may allow grandfathered elements to remain (a wood-burning fireplace, for instance); there may even be financial benefits, given the area’s sky-high construction costs. And then there’s the higher order benefit to society and the planet that comes of conserving resources and materials. The clients and design team on this house were interested in all these advantages when they decided to renovate instead of building anew.
Principal-in-charge on the project, Alan Ohashi, AIA, isn’t sure when the original house was built. “70s or 80s, maybe,” he says. “It looked like the elementary school I used to go to. It had a big parking lot, a basketball court, and no windows to speak of. Walking around the house, it didn’t really get any better. Not until you got around to the back and saw that view. That’s why the clients bought the house.”
As is often the case, everyone underestimated the scope of the undertaking necessary to transform this sow’s ear into a silk purse. And the project grew in ambition and quality as the timeline progressed. The result bears no resemblance to the original—except to those intimately familiar with the building—and looks for all the world like a brand-new custom home, conceived and executed with architectural rigor right from the start. It’s a testament to the clients’ commitment to quality and the firm’s flexibility, resilience, and vision in dealing with a somewhat improvisational project.
Although most aspects of the original house were disappointing, Alan did like its shape and the clients were largely happy with its size. “It’s basically a rectangle, and lots of good things happen with that shape.” As was the norm of the period (whatever period it was), the ceilings of the old house were too low throughout. So, the basic plan of attack was to “raise the roof and remodel everything under it,” says Alan. “The house didn’t need to be bigger, it just needed to be better.”
That sounds easy, but of course it wasn’t. Reconfiguring rooms and walls is never simple, and this house had plenty of divided spaces that required reuniting or at least opening up to sight lines and circulation flow. Improvements in energy use and moisture management were also critical. Says design director Philip Liang, “The site almost has its own microclimate on the top of the mountain. It can be cloudy below, but sunny up there. Or it can rain sideways against the house. We had to make sure the design could meet the criteria of the climate on the hill. It had to stand up to the winds.”
Vista and Volume
In a stroke of good luck, the previous owners had recently swapped out the original window system with new high-quality steel units. The team was able to preserve them and add additional units to match. The only difference was color, but they devised a clever solution to the problem: “We found an automotive paint person and had him come set up shop on site. He painted the units right there,” says Philip.
The team bumped up the height in key areas of the building by inserting a series of clerestory windows. That move took ceilings from 9 feet to 12 feet in some rooms, but the transformation is much more than volumetric. “The new window wall units and clerestory really open the house to light and scenery,” Philip explains. “The clerestory bounces light off the ceiling. And now, you can see the trees and sky continue upward through the view.”
The clients didn’t want more space in the house, but they did want to reprogram the allotment of space. They didn’t need redundant spaces, or excess square footage assigned to little-used formal rooms. First on the chopping block was the original, broadly defined family room, which became a more tightly orchestrated game room. The wood-burning fireplace had to stay where it was or be completely removed per code, so the team redesigned its surround in salvaged steel and fitted it into a wall of built-in storage with a niche for a flat screen television. Sliding doors open to a private patio—the perfect spot to enjoy a fine cigar, a well-aged cognac, and an incomparable view to the north. Beyond the patio is an elegant bocce court (“Does anyone really play bocce?” Alan asks) and the basketball court, reimagined and gussied up to match the home’s new standards.
Indeed, there was much gussying up to do of older elements. An existing radiant floor was tested, repaired, and expanded. The remaining portions of TPO roof were further waterproofed and insulated, and photovoltaics were added. The board-and-batten siding was removed and new ipe siding applied to a rainscreen system. “You don’t see any nails or screws—or even any joints,” says Alan. “We have one joint, but it’s hidden behind a downspout.” Structural steel was inserted where needed to open spans to light, views, and flow.
New carefully considered elements were also introduced into the existing scheme. The major one is a new stone wall that terminates the game room at the front elevation. The clients had found a rock with warm tones and texture they liked, and the stone was sourced to match. Another big addition were two mature olive trees planted at the threshold of the entry court, standing “like sentinels,” says Alan, and leading to a new custom pivot front door.
Extensive 3D models helped the clients envision how new spaces would relate to each other and where view corridors would occur. They were key to inspiring confidence in expensive decisions and even smaller ones. “The clients actually found a light fixture that matched a fake one we had in the model,” says Philip. The design team also built detailed solar studies to determine proper shading and depth of overhangs to minimize heat gain.
Those overhangs are trimmed in aluminum and clad in teak, rich and stable materials that combine with the ipe siding and steel windows to impart a durability and timeless quality to the house.
With the official family room eliminated, the team redesigned the kitchen area to receive a casual sitting room with dramatic see-through fireplace and large flat screen television wall. Says Alan, “The husband likes to watch TV and his wife likes to cook—and they wanted to do both in the same space. (At first, he wanted nine TVs!)”
The fireplace surround is made of volcanic lava stone, and the wood-paneled wall that holds the TV is sapele wood, which takes on a deep mahogany-like tone. The husband sourced the white oak flooring from a vendor in Los Angeles, the only place he could find engineered boards with a 6-millimeter wear layer.
The architects cantilevered the adjacent deck to extend the outdoor living area and capture a more expansive view. A cable rail system keeps sight lines unimpeded.
Back inside, on the other side of the fireplace wall and three steps down, the formal living room and dining room were combined into a single space floored in porcelain tile. Reduced in size and tucked into a niche of window walls, the living area functions more like a parlor or cocktail lounge.
Pulling the living area into the niche opened a main axis or “street” from the rear patio through the combined living and dining room, past the front hall, and on to the game room and the front patio beyond. Climbing up a short run of teak stairs from the living/dining room provides transition to the main circulation corridors and rewards with a gorgeous view through the game room to another mountain range
Reworking spaces and creating artful alignments are some of the greatest challenges in a renovation. And nothing here looks haphazardly placed—or left in place as a last resort. There are no strange, vestigial rooms lacking clear purpose or definition. The entire plan reads as deliberately and meticulously arranged.
What’s more, the construction looks as deftly crafted as if the building had been framed for its current design right from the inception, instead of more than 30 years ago. Thanks to Dan Nowell’s team at Eden Roc Builders, materials come together here with an inevitability that belies the ugly truths of remodeling work and existing conditions. It may have started as an improvisation, but the result is a tour de force.
“The project really grew on us,” says Alan. “It started with a small scope and budget, and then it became, ‘What about this? What about that?’ But it turned out really, really nicely. Now the house exemplifies the best of California and Marin living.”
What creates that ineffable California style? It all starts with a flat roof and a bounty of glorious windows. “The rhythm and placement of the windows are very important. They need to capture views, but also an openness and ease of living,” says Alan. “Even so, it was still a surprise for us how much you can pull out of an old, ranch-style house with a little vision.”
Plans and Drawings
ARCHITECT: Alan Ohashi, AIA, principal in charge; Philip Liang, design director, ODS Architecture, Emeryville, Calif.
BUILDER: Dan Nowell, Eden Roc Builders, Corte Madera, Calif.
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Pedersen Associates, San Rafael, Calif.
SITE SIZE: .68 acres
PROJECT SIZE: 4,600 square feet
CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld
PHOTOGRAPHER: Paul Dyer Photography
WINDOWS: Fleetwood Windows & Doors
ENTRY DOOR: Pivot Door Company
CLADDING: Ipe rainscreen system exterior wall
ROOF WINDOWS: Royalite, VELUX
ROOF FASCIA: ALPOLIC aluminum composite panels
STONE: Caldera split-face stone, ASN Natural Stone
BATH VENTILATION: Panasonic
KITCHEN APPLIANCES: Miele, Sub-Zero, Wolf