Modern day charm

California’s Bay Area is known for classic, Craftsman-style architecture – and not so much 1970s-vintage tract homes. So when the long-time owners of a fading Orinda, Calif., ranch located in Contra Costa County decided their home was ready for a major upgrade, they quickly settled on a turn-of-the-last-century design. The resulting remodel may have the appeal of yesteryear, but it features today’s latest low-maintenance materials – along with the earthquake protection it needs to carry it through decades of tomorrows.

Earthquake and fire protection are both important issues for any project in the Bay Area, as the region has seen significant destruction from both types of natural disaster in the past few decades. Damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake raised the bar on necessary seismic protection for both existing and new construction throughout California. And, just two years later, a firestorm in Oakland killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,000 single-family homes, making the flammability of building materials a concern for both homeowners and building officials. 

Transforming an eyesore

The owners of this home certainly had had plenty of time to work out their requirements, both practical and aesthetic, having lived in the house for 20 years or so before plans were ever drawn, according to remodeler Bonny Weil, whose general contracting firm is based in Martinez, Calif. She describes the house as she originally saw it as a tract house sited in a really gorgeous location, sporting “a very basic finish, with kind of low-end trims and aluminum windows.

“I can say, this house, when we started, was the ugliest in the neighborhood.”

And Weill, who began her hands-on training as a union apprentice carpenter in San Francisco in 1980, certainly has the experience to make such a judgment. She gained her license as a general contractor in 1990, and opened her own firm, Bonny Weil General Contractor, focused primarily in Contra Costa and Alameda Counties, four years later. Her work has won awards from the Berkeley Architectural Association and the California Redwood Association.

The sad-sack looks of this house were most visible in its cladding of T-1-11 plywood siding, grooved to resemble more old-school batten boards, and in its three aging decks. Like many of the area’s hillside homes, this one features a site that requires a retaining wall, and this prominent architectural feature was a mismatch of wood and concrete.

But the design wasn’t the home’s only out-of-date feature – its seismic protection also was in severe need of upgrading. In fact, Weil was hired into her general contractor role after some of the concrete work already was underway. And, because of the complexity of adding required shear walls to the structure of the home itself, Weill says she interacted more frequently with the project’s engineer than its architect. 

Upgrading the structure

One point of frequent conversation between contractor and architect was determining the fine points of the home’s shear-wall requirements. In most places, Weil and her crew were able to install the new fiber-cement shingles directly over the existing plywood siding, but where shear walls were required, that original cladding had to be stripped away. Added structural beams under the home also were part of the structural upgrade.

In all, the extensive remodeling project totaled $325,000, focusing only on the exterior (with minor interior drywall and trim work around the replaced windows and added skylights). Although not an insignificant budget for an outside-only job, it covered a great deal of work. Transforming the aging ranch into a Craftsman beauty required a complete re-working of the home’s shed-style roof to create a post-and-beam-style gable, with three new skylights providing interior spaces with more natural daylight. Poorly performing single-pane windows were replaced with energy-efficient casements, and all three crumbling decks were rebuilt. 
Also adding to the Craftsman look is the stone veneer now lining the entry’s retaining wall, which visually grounds the home to its hilly location. It might look like hand-laid river stone, but in this case, beauty really is only skin deep. And new carriage-style garage doors add a touch of class to a very utilitarian function.

The products specified all were chosen with reduced maintenance in mind – though the house now may look like a century-old charmer, its materials are entirely 21st Century. Foremost among these modern-day performers are the fiber-cement shingles now cladding the structure. Unlike traditional cedar-shake, these shingles will maintain their like-new looks indefinitely – performance Weil has seen first-hand in a previous project.

“I know the house we did five years ago [looks] exactly the same,” she says, adding that the home’s location was just as important in the shingles’ selection as their appearance. “This house is out in the woods and this is a wonderful, non-flammable material. Plus, it lasts forever. My carpenter loved it. This makes me look really good.”

Similarly, the decks’ wood planking has been replaced with composite boards that feature a fade-free redwood finish, along with powder-coated aluminum railings that should remain similarly timeless. As a finishing touch, additional Craftsman-style lighting fixtures matching a set already installed help ensure the property looks as good in the evening as it does in broad daylight.

“None of this needs to be painted,” Weil says. “There is just a small amount of the eaves and downspouts they’ll ever need to do.”