Craig Steely Architecture

Craig Steely Architecture

The penthouse studio rises through the planted roof.
Bruce Damonte
Left to right: The kitchen is flooded with natural light from above; the facade is composed of reused wood strips; a steel exoskeleton fronts the original Victorian exterior; a frosted glass wall separates the bathroom from the master bedroom.

A house overlooking Eureka Valley in San Francisco is a delicious Napoleon pastry of a layered building: There’s a dramatic industrial-chic facade, a wood-lined Sea Ranch-style retreat on top, and some toothsome Victorian gingerbread in back.

For architect Craig Steely, whose firm tagline is “modern architecture in exotic places, exotic architecture in modern places,” the major renovation of a house dating from the 1880s was a tightrope act. “The clients didn’t want a really modern house or a painstakingly precise renovation,” said Steely. “It’s hard to have both new and old be really strong, and not have one nullify the other.”

Once king of the hill, the original Victorian had been the lone house in the area, directly facing the San Francisco Bay. More houses and a road were built next to it, changing the south side of the house into the front. Over the years, a series of ramshackle additions—“weekend warrior projects,” said Steely—were tacked on to the street-facing side. Astonished by the panoramic vistas, now available only from the rooftop, the clients purchased the property with the goal of adding another level and quickly realized that they would need a major seismic upgrade.

The home’s simple, cozy living space (left) and a detail of the living room’s oblique picture window (right).

But rather than take the motley lot down altogether, which would have been the more cost-effective approach, the clients—he’s an artist, she’s a filmmaker—were adamant that some of the historical structure be saved. Steely devised a strategy that would avoid tampering with the Victorian facade while providing necessary stability: a steel “exoskeleton” accompanied by a series of moment frames staggered through the completely reworked interiors.

The highly visible, four-story exoskeleton defines the facade. Made of galvanized I-beams that were bolted together onsite, it gives the house a major-construction-site grandeur. At first glance, the exterior cladding looks like it could be corrugated metal, but on closer inspection, it reveals itself to be a jigsaw puzzle of wood strips, painted with one coat for a whitewashed effect. The client spent three weeks milling the redwood salvaged from the old additions into siding of five different widths to create a subtle but pleasing irregularity. “It’s like a Louise Nevelson piece,” said Steely. For contrast, the Victorian facade was painted Day-Glo chartreuse.

The penthouse studio on top is like a cabin in a field—but one that has been uprooted and transplanted to the top of a much larger residence. The 250-square-foot space has a ceiling and floor paneled in cedar with a band of windows continuing seamlessly across a round corner, opening up three sides to the view. The sunken design brings the rooftop landscaping up to eye level—the garden of native grasses and plants lies just below the bottom of the windows which are about three feet from the floor. Framing the view is the steel exoskeleton, which forms an immense contemporary trellis. Instead of vines, it is draped with bifacial solar panels that collect light from above and below, while filtering the light entering the house.

A home office looks out over San Francisco (left) and the home’s planted roof (right).

Below the studio is the house proper: an open kitchen and dining and living rooms form an L around an enclosed wing, with two bedrooms and two bathrooms. The level below is divided between an office and a separate apartment that the clients are renting out. The studio is linked with the main living space through the round stairwell of a spiral staircase, but it also has a view into the kitchen through a large skylight.

While from within, the focus is on visual tiers from many vantage points and through various apertures, the house itself, with its striking steel trellis and balconies dramatically extending towards the horizon provides a welcome addition to the city’s panorama.