Real Estate

Going green, fitting in

New eco-friendly home blends well in historic neighborhood

It isn't easy designing and building a brand-new house adjacent to a historical district that doesn't leap out and say: This just doesn't fit.

But Oakland architect Cathy Schwabe rose to the challenge, not only adapting her design to mesh with its more traditional neighbors, but creating an energy-efficient structure that earned more than double the 115 "green" points required.

Schwabe's solution was to site the two-story house near Palo Alto's Professorville on a double lot, carefully building around the mature redwoods in front, and using unpainted wood and broad roofs.

"We wanted it to be open to the sun, but make one feel like it's a smaller scale," Schwabe says. "It feels like a collection of buildings."

One enters through what the architect refers to as the "circulation spine" -- a roomy foyer with stairways leading down to the giant family room, exercise area, guest bedroom and bath, or up to sleeping quarters.

Turn left to find a study and laundry area, leading to the guest house in back.

Turn right to enter the great room, encompassing living room, dining room and kitchen.

The house is built in two distinct wings, with that circulation spine in the center. Huge windows open to front and back, many with motorized roll-down shades recessed into the framing. Some are on timers that respond to temperature as well as time of day.

Sensitivity to the streetscape, and specifically to the next-door neighbors, led to pulling the house back on the second floor on one side, so it wouldn't hover over the smaller structure. On the opposite side, the wall extends straight up -- not a problem next to the two-story neighbor.

Enormous thought went into specific materials that would help exceed the California State Energy Requirements by 41 percent: The City of Palo Alto requires all new residential building to follow a GreenPoint Rated checklist, scoring the construction on everything from minimizing disruption of existing trees to using recycled materials for walkways and engineered lumber.

Some examples of green-inspired touches:

* zoned hydronic radiant heating and cooling;

* counter tops made of CaesarStone, IceStone and cast concrete;

* FSC-certified wood (bamboo and Douglas fir) used on flooring and stairs;

* edible landscape;

* deconstruction of original building, salvaging reusable building products.

Nearly every room of the house flows indoor/outdoor -- especially the master suite. The only furniture in the master bedroom is an upholstered bed; all storage is built-in. No window coverings are required because the balcony facing the street is high enough to provide privacy.

The master bathroom features a tub and shower (which converts to a steam shower) that leads out through a glass door to the deck adjacent to the bedroom -- with an outdoor shower and bathtub.

Basements are often dark, potentially damp areas. Here, the family room/play area opens to a large below-grade patio and a wall garden next to stairs leading into the backyard. A glass fence separates the patio from the large lawn, suitable for children's play.

One of the landscape challenges was finding plants that would grow along the wall and below the stairway in the shade, according to Monty Hall, from Arterra Landscape Design. Recycled enviro-glass is sprinkled between the cast-concrete stepping-stones on the patio.

The landscape designers were involved early on in the design process, including making sure waterproofing foundation walls was known upfront.

"It was very collaborative," notes Vera Gates, a principal with Arterra. "It was a really fun and exciting way to work."

The crew was very careful not to disturb the roots of the neighboring Zelkova tree while digging out the basement. Today the backyard enjoys shade from both that mature Zelkova and a towering oak behind, what Gates calls "borrowed landscape."

The backyard features lawn for playing, as well as edible, native and low-water-use plants and permeable paving. The front has an expanse of fescue, a grass that will grow to about 10 inches before gracefully flopping over, offering a "meadow effect."

"The idea was to have the house clearly of today, but also blend Craftsman and Modern. ... It fits with the neighborhood," Schwabe says, "with an eye to standing up over time."


Architect: Cathy Schwabe, AIA, Oakland, 510-658-3651

Building contractor: Drew Maran, Palo Alto, 650-323-8541

Landscape architect: Vera Gates, Arterra Landscape Architects, San Francisco, 415-861-3100

Furnishings: Kathy Bloodworth, Kathy Bloodworth Interior Design

Interior design: John Lum Architecture, San Francisco

Goal of project:

Build family-focused, eco-friendly, nearly net-zero house

Year house built:


Size of home, lot:

3,700 sq ft (plus full basement) on 10,000-sq-ft lot

Time to complete:

2 years to design, get permits; 2 years to build

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