Real Estate

Meet and greet the architects

AIA tour features four homes designed by locals

"Open, honest, transparent." That's how Menlo Park architect Ana Williamson describes her client's mantra about what her new home in Menlo Oaks needed to be.

What she came up with is a modern take on a farmhouse, set on an L-shaped lot sprinkled with elderly oak trees. Up a long driveway, first impressions are of a more traditional home. A second look reveals the steel-and-glass front door, large windows (but broken up into traditional panes) and clerestory rather than dormer windows on the second story.

That "modern farmhouse" is one of four homes that will be on a self-guided tour this weekend, with the local architects on hand to show and tell. Each house was built within the last five years, and most are modern.

"It's an opportunity to have conversations with the architects, but it's about more than showing the finished product," Williamson said.

The 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath house she designed took two and a half years from design to move-in date. The client first purchased a customized 640-square-foot prefab unit from Connect Homes, Los Angeles, where she and her then 4-year-old daughter lived during construction. It came in handy for daily meetings on site and now serves as a rental unit on the property. (It will also be included in the tour.)

The client was very clear that she didn't want a pretentious house that had rooms that nobody sat in. Instead, she wanted open spaces, to capture as much light as possible and to constantly connect to the outdoors, Williamson said, pointing to the large Loewen glass doors leading out from the living room to the backyard.

She also wanted "modern living in a country setting, to stay away from anything too trendy, a timeless design that she wouldn't be regretting in five years," she added.

Modern homes "speak more to a frame of mind, of how we live, unencumbered, without preconceived notions about open space," Williamson said. "This has a very modern concept but also realizes more traditional elements of separating spaces, finding space for more intimacy."

Although the lot is close to an acre, the building space is narrow, and "The setbacks were very restrictive. That forced us to come up with a long and linear scheme," Williamson said. On the first floor, rooms march along in a row, from the garage to the mudroom, entryway and office, kitchen, dining area and living room.

The color palette is neutral throughout, with light white oak flooring and white walls. In the kitchen, pale gray cabinets are accented by dark gray Pietra Grigio basalt countertops and lighter Heath Ceramics tiles in the backsplash. A large marble-topped island houses both the microwave and a wine cabinet.

Wolf appliances and hood are stainless steel and modern, contrasting with the Shaws Classic farmer's sink. A barbecue is easily accessible, in a side yard just outside the kitchen.

The living room sports a cathedral ceiling with decorative, not structural, reclaimed French oak beams. "It's a nod to French farmhouse," Williamson said, as is the distressed dining-room table, "a mix of old and new."

Throughout the house, that mix of old and new is evident, with windows sporting simple casings, vertical tongue-and-groove wall paneling and small, intimate spaces carved out in the wide, open rooms. These include several comfortable and cozy window seats, strewn with pillows.

The front door was originally planned as a more traditional, wooden door, but Williamson soon convinced her client that the glass and steel embraced the indoor/outdoor sensibility. The banister on the central staircase then needed to echo that style.

Right off the entryway is the client's home office, a large, sunny room, closed by a sliding barn door for phone privacy. Another barn door was used to separate the master bedroom from the en-suite bathroom and walk-in closet/dressing room.

Light was a key factor in designing and decorating the rooms. No window coverings were used downstairs, but were reserved for the upstairs bedrooms.

"All the light fixtures were carefully curated for the space," Williamson said, pointing out the over-sized, upside-down, bell-shaped hanging lights in the kitchen and the whimsical, yet dramatic, chandelier above the stairs.

Energy efficiency and eco-friendliness were important elements, Williamson said, and included use of non-toxic products, attic insulation using spray foam, radiant heating on the ground floor, forced-air on the second floor and use of a Nest thermostat system.

More than anything, Williamson posed, a home is a reflection of the homeowner, not the architect. "If we do a good job, the house was designed only for (the client) in this location. We cannot replicate this house.

"It's not for the faint of heart to build a house from scratch. It's a journey, an adventure," she said.

Other homes on the tour include:

• Case Study Home, Menlo Park -- designed by square three design studios, Palo Alto, inspired by the Southern California Case Study of 1950s contemporary homes. Key features are large glass expanses, open floor plans, indoor/outdoor integration and horizontal low-profile roof planes.

• Old La Honda residence, Woodside -- designed by Fergus, Garber, Young, Palo Alto; sited between a steep forest and an old orchard and meadow, with cross-bay and valley views, the home uses materials and colors taken from surrounding area. The home is designed for low water use and natural cooling.

• Westridge Residence, Portola Valley -- designed by Tobin Dougherty Architects, Palo Alto; emphasis on interior and exterior spaces flowing together through interlocking spaces, blurring the distinction between inside and outside.

Visitors to the tour, as well as members of AIA (American Institute of Architects) Santa Clara Valley and San Mateo chapters, are invited to an Architect Mixer & Design Showcase on Friday, Aug. 5, from 5:30 - 7:30 p.m. at the Rejuvenation showroom, 323 University Ave., Palo Alto.


What: AIA Silicon Valley Home Tour

When: Saturday, Aug. 6, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Where: Four homes in Menlo Park, Portola Valley and Woodside (addresses will be provided with tickets/program)

Cost: $75 general admission, $59 for AIA members, children under 10 free; pick up tickets at House #1

Info: No cameras or camera phones allowed; remove shoes or wear provided shoe covers; no opening cabinets, closets, drawers, etc.


Freelance writer Carol Blitzer can be emailed at

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