Balancing the Traditional and the Contemporary on a Berkeley Hillside

Balancing the Traditional and the Contemporary on a Berkeley Hillside

Byron Kuth and Eliza Koshland

Recently, the AIA East Bay gave one of our firm’s houses a 2017 Merit Award, so we thought we would tell the story behind the design, which involved a tricky remodel on a difficult site.

In 2010, Mary and Doug, moved from Maryland to Berkeley so Doug could take a job at U.C. Berkeley. They wanted to find a home no more than 15 minutes away from the campus. After they’d looked at a number of homes, a friend mailed them a newspaper clipping of a house for sale. On the back was another house for sale, designed by John Dinwiddie and built in 1937. Nestled into the base of the Claremont Canyon, it caught their attention. They loved the feel of the patio, the hillside location, and the untapped potential that lay in this modest house.

However, there were some challenges. The house is located on a hairpin turn in the road, which meant that the interiors were exposed to a large number of cars. The front of the house was flat and seemed to loom over the driveway with its bay window. The staircase leading up to the front door sliced the terrace in half and felt at odds with the façade.

In addition, the house had been remodeled so extensively that its original bones had been compromised. The spaces felt small and confining. And although the living room’s large bay window offered a stunning view, the house didn’t really look out onto the regional preserve on one side or the house’s own garden on the other. Every room had a missed opportunity to connect to the beautiful landscape.

The design challenge was to find ways to make those connections that balanced the great qualities that remained of the original house with contemporary living styles. Doug had grown up in a house in Lafayette that his mother had transformed by opening up the interiors and bringing in daylight, so in a way they were carrying on a family tradition.

To enliven the flat exterior, we pushed the ground-floor living room’s front wall forward and angled it. This move also gave the bedrooms on the floor above more privacy from the street, because now they are set back slightly, and they have their own private porch, lending a treehouse feel.

We kept the existing concrete retaining wall but repositioned the staircase so it hugs the wall instead of cutting into the terrace and breaking the flow. That created a more welcoming sense of procession and left space for an outdoor living/dining area on the terrace. With its wooden slats, the stairway is a delicate element, playing off the solidity of the concrete wall. The house has become a composition of fragmented geometries, with existing and new aspects integrated together into a whole.

We reconfigured the living room, dining room, and kitchen on the main floor to create a more contemporary open flow between rooms, allowing for large holiday gatherings as well as everyday family dinners. In the living room, we could have added another large window to give views to the hillside, but having two large windows would have overwhelmed the room. Instead, we created a long strip window adjacent to the bay window, a strategy that varied the rhythm of the views while also leaving space for furniture: the room depends on the cabinetry wall and the fireplace wall.

Opening up the rooms meant that the main stairs became a focal point. Because both owners are scientists, we detailed the new stairs and custom handrail with wood cutouts that abstractly represent a DNA molecule. The screen is plywood milled with a computer numerical control (CNC) milling machine, using contemporary technologies to produce the kind of crafting associated with traditional house construction. With the advent of modernism, this kind of ornate detailing and patterning fell away, but new technologies like CNC are bringing it back.

In the kitchen, we aimed to improve the flow of the workspaces and maximize counter space as much as possible. Mary is a great baker, and she has always wanted counters that would be the right height for baking given her petite stature. It was difficult to provide that in such a small space, so instead we created a fold-down box that she can step up onto when she’s baking, then tuck away when she wants to use the counter for other purposes. The kitchen also has views to the garden and the adjacent regional park.

People who pass by the house were surprisingly invested in it. While we were working on it, hikers would say, “We love this house. What are you doing to it?” Now that Mary and Doug have moved in, they sometimes hear compliments called up to them when they’re sitting on the patio. Even the man who collects the trash said, “This is awesome.”

Photography by Matthew Millman

More about the Claremont Canyon Residence


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