33 Tehama
January 01, 2018

‘Even the Developers Wouldn’t Touch It’ – Two Architects Tear Down an Uninhabitable House and Start Over

When architects Robert Edmonds and Vivian Lee moved from New York City to San Francisco, they discovered something many outsiders don’t know about the City by the Bay: The fog is not distributed equitably.

After a few years, they’d had enough. “We wanted to move to an area with more sun and fewer hills,” says Lee. “Plus, we were looking for a neighborhood with a vibrant Main Street.”

They found the conditions they were looking for in Noe Valley. But while the charming neighborhood has what many would consider a more favorable climate, it is also home to some of the more eye-popping real estate prices in the city. The couple eschewed the properties that might incite a bidding frenzy and instead looked for homes that would be more likely to induce a sinking feeling.

“As architects, we didn’t want to live in someone else’s architecture, we wanted to live in our own,” says Edmonds. “We started looking for an extreme fixer where we could make a project for ourselves. We were searching for the place nearly everyone else would consider a disaster.”

The only way to describe the 750-square-foot home they found was rough. “It was in very, very poor shape,” says Edmonds.

In other words, it was perfect for them.

Given the size and the condition of the house, the architects determined the best thing to do would be to tear it down and start over, a process that promises a lengthy review and much discussion at the Planning Department. Developers eyeing the house must have determined the same thing, as most decided to pass on the property. “They knew the project would be in Planning for a year or two—or possibly longer. That’s the kind of thing most developers aren’t eager to take on. But we could wait,” says Edmonds. (The process took them more than two years.)

The home they created, a dramatic house with a loft-like feel, proved to be worth the wait for the couple and their two children. “We wanted to make a modern home for a family,” says Lee. “There’s a perception that modern homes are not practical for real people, and we set out to disprove that by showcasing the functionality of the style.”

Although they had remodeled homes for themselves, they had never built one from scratch. They found the process liberating. “We had the freedom to design what we wanted. We just didn’t have the freedom to pay for it,” says Edmonds. “We had to make very deliberate decisions about what we wanted and what we could afford. But as we tell our clients, sometimes constraint leads to great design.”

Although they were starting with a blank slate, the architects decided to subtly reference the past and nearby dwellings by giving the new house a gabled roof. “Most modern homes have flat roofs, and we wanted to see if we could make it work with a gabled roofline,” says Edmonds.

Even though they could have added another story, the architects chose not to do so. “We were going for quality, not quantity,” explains Edmonds.

The couple decided to rethink what is needed in an interior. “We tried to eliminate all of the boundaries you find in a traditional home,” says Lee. “We don’t have a formal foyer or formal living room. There are very few hallways. It’s basically one big space.”

They flipped the layout by putting the bedrooms on the lower level and the kitchen and living room on the upper level. By putting the public areas on the upper level they not only get to enjoy the view during the daylight hours, but they can access the outdoors via terraces at the front and rear of the home. “It seemed logical to have a layout where you can enjoy the views during the daylight hours,” says Lee.

The living area is sunken, three feet down from the kitchen. “We followed the topography of the site, and we chose to see it as an opportunity rather than a liability,” Lee says. “By allowing the living room to be on a lower level, we could build a home that appears smaller rather than massive [there’s no need to ‘build up’ a slope]. We also created an opportunity for built-in seating and a ‘stage’ where our boys like to perform.”

The interior is largely white but, in the kitchen, a monolithic black island makes for a crisp contrast. The walls of white cabinets, with no hardware in sight, seem to dissolve into the background—until you open them. Behind the white cabinet fronts are gray interiors. “We love the contrast,” says Lee. “But for the most part, we do want the kitchen to recede. If it doesn’t read as a kitchen, it makes the space much more fluid.”

The home can be considered minimalist, but not monastic. With two children and mere mortal status, the architects had to make the minimal aesthetic work for a regular family.

“Just like most people, we have a toaster and a microwave,” admits Edmonds. “We just made sure that we have lots of storage in the kitchen, extra storage closets, and room for the kids where they can be themselves and be messy if they want.”

But that’s not to say the kids don’t appreciate their new home. “It was a great exercise for them to see the building process,” says Lee. “Not only did they get to see what we do for a living, they saw the effort behind it. In a disposable society, I think this showed them how to make something lasting.”

This article originally appeared on Curbed San Francisco.
© Vox Media Inc., 2018.

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