Owen Kennerly

Owen Kennerly

The Pine Street Lofts in San Francisco.
Tim Griffith

Flexibility is a virtue, particularly when you work on wildly diverse sites as Owen Kennerly Architecture & Planning does. The four-person San Francisco firm makes the most of the city’s urban framework, creating unique spatial progressions and view corridors while building on tight or even sloping plots. They’ve also learned to work in rural areas, where environmental and landscape restrictions are completely different from urban settings.

“It’s not just making it look slick and beautiful, but the internal problem-solving that goes into these projects,” said founder Owen Kennerly, who sees each as an “investigation.” The studio is also flexible in terms of style, often incorporating classic ideas in a modern way. “I don’t like to be polemical,” Kennerly stressed.

Kennerly, who graduated from Berkeley in 1994 and works together with his wife Sarina Bowen Kennerly, is one of the city’s rising stars, and his firm was one of six to win an AIA SF Emerging Practices Award last spring. The downturn has slowed some of their projects, but things seem to be getting back on track with fascinating work.



COURTESY owen Kennerly

27th Street Residence
San Francisco

The project is nicknamed the “Vessel” because “it feels like it’s surfing on the land,” Kennerly said. In fact it is a 3,800-square-foot addition to a small home in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. The existing building volume is clad in a scrim of cedar pickets stretching back into the slope of the site’s steep hill to establish a podium of bedrooms and service areas. To prevent the dark centers that often plague townhouses, front-to-back living spaces with glass at both ends open to a panoramic view and garden. And to make an unusual progression of space feel more unified, each square foot gets used: Hallways become stairs, and vice-versa. Shaped by the slipstream of neighbors’ views and sightlines, the faceted-cedar master suite is suspended overhead like a ship (another reason for the house’s name), set between skylights.


Courtesy Owen Kennerly

Lake Tahoe Beach House
Lake Tahoe

Conceived as three conjoined cabins, this 2,400-square-foot vacation home combines modern architecture with rustic living on a challenging north shore site of Lake Tahoe. In response to local ordinances that require new structures to minimize their drainage “shadow” along the perimeter of the lake (Kennerly hired a botanist to make a study), the design lifts the bulk of the dwelling a full floor above grade with generous cantilevers that reduce its effective footprint. Kennerly calls this form “an inverted ziggurat.” Thus the existing spatial flow of the site is retained, and a sheltered patio is created at grade. Accessed by a long ramping stair, the home’s slight variations—like mild level changes and walls that pinch in subtly—make it cozy for two people or as many as 20. The material palette combines blackened zinc with board-formed concrete, natural cedar, and glass.



Thomas Heinser

Photo Studio
Marin County
This new building, designed with architect Jon Oelschig, replaces a dilapidated barn set among mature trees, “capturing the spirit,” said Kennerly, of the barn’s vernacular form and of the peaceful setting around it. “It’s got the logic and clarity of an agricultural building with a modern twist,” he added. The firm used the proportions of the barn and rotated the new space 90 degrees, allowing for more natural light plus strategic shading. The main workspace is a gabled basilica structured by pre-engineered steel frames and wrapped in a skin of Cor-ten steel, polycarbonate, and salvaged redwood. The space is heated with a hydronic radiant floor and is passively cooled using thermal mass, natural ventilation, and the shade of existing trees. Combined with the double polycarbonate skin, the space is luminous, elegant, and relatively affordable at $350,000.


tim griffith

Pine Street Lofts
San Francisco

Located on a small 37-by-75-foot lot on a nondescript block on the south slope of Nob Hill, this five-story building reinterprets the city’s traditional architecture by taking the classic order of base, middle, and top, and unifying it behind a terra-cotta rain screen. It employs San Francisco’s omnipresent bay windows, but here the minimal double-height openings resemble sleek prisms and allow views both outward and around the block. A two-story lobby slips up between the windows. The top apartments feature mezzanines opening onto private roof decks with views across downtown.