A simple, open experience

Sometimes, successful design is achieved by the absence of it. Such is the case for this home in Portola Valley, Calif., where the absence of design is what the homeowner enjoys most. Specifically, the rear of this home opens, creating a large expanse thanks to custom pocketing doors that completely disappear. As the builder says, this project is all about the doors.

“The whole project was all about that opening,” says Fiona Woods, project manager, Northbay Construction in San Francisco, the firm that built the home. “To create the door opening, we put headers in the whole way around, which is standard for doors like these. They’re unbelievably heavy, but I was impressed with how easy they are to open. The owner had no problem swinging them open and closed.”

The doors were a priority of the client, and were the solution for making sense of the available space. The Fleetwood aluminum, double-paned doors include huge sheets of glass, and were custom-made for this house, Woods says.

The manufacturer’s offices were being relocated during this project, which caused a minor interruption in the critical path, but everything worked out in the end. “The doors came and we got a lot of guys there and popped them in in one day,” she says.

From the designer’s perspective, the sliding doors complement the building’s simple plan and present a simple solution for opening it up, says Mark Macy, AIA, LEED AP, principal, Macy Architecture, San Francisco. “At certain points for thermal and structural reasons we could pocket the doors and make them disappear. The goal is visual simplicity and easy operation and that’s what we ended up with.”

What the team began with, however, was the foundation of the previously existing home. This did not present much of a challenge, Macy says, but it does force one to think a little more. “[The existing foundation] was just part of the design problem, but usually, the best design happens when you have limitations, when you have constraints like this.”

The style of this home is modern with much of its elements created in response to the site. For example, the original home was oriented east and didn’t take advantage of the nice southerly exposure, Macy explains. “We opened it up and took advantage of that southern exposure,” he says.

Universal design plays a small role in how the home is designed. The shapes within it are not too complex, Macy says. “We decided how the home should flow and incorporated that flow structurally and spatially. The flow is efficient, with no real hallways; circulation is at the perimeter. After all, clients aren’t paying for hallways. The client is in her 70s and single, so we tried to make it as low-maintenance as possible, he says. In addition, the home features a sunken bathtub, but we detailed it in a way in which you retroactively can place a decking system so you can roll right into it.”

The guest house is a studio with a bathroom on one side; it’s compartmentalized with a lavatory, shower and kitchenette. “We built that structure first and [the owner] lived in it during construction.” The guest house could provide rental housing stock with minimal impact on a neighborhood. I’m laying out plans for homes that include the possibility of second entrances, too.” Additionally, he says, the detached secondary unit holds the potential to host live-in help in a more private way than sleeping in the bedroom next door.

For Woods and her team, constructing the guest house was a dress rehearsal for the main home. This presented new challenges, such as mobilizing every sub twice, because the guest house essentially is a mini version of the main house with the same products and materials. “So I had to go back and re-estimate everything and work out the subs for two schedules. We had to price realistically, and had to be clear with the subs, telling them to be honest and not price to get a job because they already had the job. It turned out to be a good practice run; we all learned a lot by doing it that way, and were able to make any mistakes on a smaller scale,” Woods says.

The construction team was able to see the colored concrete in place, and the tile selection in place, all before the main house was built. “We were able to get a sense of what things would be like in the main house. It was a departure for us but it worked. In many ways this was two projects.”

The Elevation

From the moment one turns the corner in front of the house, a sense of cohesiveness across the entire property is clear. It blends nicely, with nothing obnoxious about it, which is typical of a Mark Macy project, Woods says. Even the garage door is camouflaged to maintain design continuity.

A hidden garage door is a bit of an obsession with Macy, he says. “Garage doors often take a prominence from the street, which is not ideal. We weren’t going to change the garage location so we had to disguise it. It was an interesting idea to make it part of the exterior of the building. It adds a little bit of mystery and fun,” Macy says.

Entering the property from the outside, one steps into a pavilion that leads first to a courtyard and then into the house. “It’s informal that way. If you look at some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses in terms of the expression on the outside, he used wood on the exterior that was beautiful, but not low-maintenance. We have the benefit of fiber cement so we can achieve both,” Macy explains.

Once in the back yard, a translucent glass fence provides privacy and creates a courtyard. The neighborhood consists of generous lots with homes flanking this one and across the street.

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