The houses showcased in this year’s AIA SF Home Tours in Marin County have a common theme in their responsive attitude to the landscape; permeable skins allowing a transparent transition between interior and exterior, embedding into their sites, and visually enlarging the volume of their comparatively modest footprints on steeply situated hillside lots. Each of the homes have unassuming public facades, displaying a circumspect propriety among its neighbors. The architecture of these residences say as much about their setting as the spaces inside.
The heavily wooded and circuitous single lane roads of Mill Valley necessitated the use of shuttle buses to travel to several of the homes. The town’s residential architecture reveals its historical evolution from mill town to beatnik refuge to hippie commune, to wealthy upper middle-class San Francisco enclave. The Sausalito Residence by 450 Architects recalls the boxy residential minimalism of William Wurster. Its steel frame is wrapped by an FSC certified wood skin and interior finishes milled by the contractor Quantum Builders, who are part of the Passive House movement in California. Inside, the open plan living and dining room opens out to expansive views of Richardson Bay. Its copper roof collects rainwater for the home’s cistern, while its glass facades serve to bring in light and warmth to this passive solar house design. The extensive electronic circuitry pervading the automated functions of the house can be controlled from the owner’s mobile phone.
The stark enclosed volumes of the Portnoy Danzig Residence in Mill Valley by Sharon Portnoy Design shut off noise and traffic on the street side; by contrast, the interior living and dining spaces have a glass façade that wraps around a lawn with views of Mount Tampalpais beyond. Clean lines, natural wood and concrete, and use of spot colors enliven the rooms of this very family oriented residence.
The Lovell House was a labor of love by architects Cecilia and Alfred Quezada, who spent 14 years renovating and expanding the original 1950s shed roof redwood box house for themselves. Though the architects grew the house from 1000 to almost 4000 square feet, the building manages to rest on the property rather discreetly, retaining low sightlines and instead preferring to build down into the hillside. An architect’s potpourri of materials is shown in the building’s exposed steel siding, maple, cherry, and fir walls and cabinets, monolithic black granite countertops, marble slab walls, and exposed concrete foundations. Extensive use of steel sash windows recall the original industrial windows, while translucent Kalwall ceilings bring in bright diffuse light into the kitchen and living areas.
Architect Scott Lee’s Hillside Residence, situated on a steeply angled lot, necessitated building up four levels to capture space and views. Meticulously detailed and constructed by contractor McDonald Construction and Development, this LEED Platinum certified house has the zen feel of a luxury spa, unsurprisingly since one of the owners is a spa development executive. The owners, contractor, and interior designer Erin Martin worked closely with a multitude of talented metal, wood, and concrete craftspeople to create a warm and sophisticated handcrafted aesthetic that takes advantage of local artisans and recycled materials. The relatively modest sizes of the interior spaces are enlarged by opening up to expansive outdoor decks, incorporating surrounding views.
The anomaly and arguably the highlight of the tour was a project done fifty years earlier by architect Daniel Liebermann, and recently renovated with tactful discretion by Vivian Dwyer. Studying at the Harvard GSD during the Gropius era and apprenticing with Wright (he worked on the Marin County Civic Center), Liebermann’s work seems to have experienced a bit of a reconsideration in light of the recent buzz around sustainable design; his projects remind us that the modernists were interested in green building long before it was fashionable and associated with filling out a list of design credits.
The quirky crescent shaped design of the 1960 Radius House (a cross of Wright, Bruce Goff, and Mill Valley vernacular) which Liebermann built for himself, springs out of a spiralling helix of metal columns supporting a radiating assymmetrical timber roof. The house is constructed from recycled wood, local stone, and uses a concrete slab floor for passive heating, and a double shell roof for ventilation and services. Nestled into the hillside, its compact 850 square feet footprint is miniscule by today’s standards, yet feels much larger because of its long curvilinear open plan and continuous glass facade facing a forested canyon view. A massive hand laid stone fireplace helps to bind the house to its site, and serves to reinforce the idea that a house can be situated as part of the landscape, rather than being simply relating to it. It is a lesson well worth appreciating in understanding what sustainable design thinking can be today.