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Minimalism with a view

Five homes showcase local architects on Dwell Silicon Valley Home Tour

No drawer pulls, window moldings or massive appliances mar the minimalist aesthetic of the Moody Road home, the smallest of the five homes on tour this weekend as part of the self-guided Dwell Silicon Valley Home Tour.

Owners Mauri Okamoto-Kearney and Terry Kearney had already done a practice run on modernizing their previous home in Palo Alto. This time, the couple started from scratch.

"We wanted it to be site-appropriate, and my husband is very particular about revealing the bones, the structure, of everything, not covering things up," Okamoto-Kearney said.

At the Los Altos Hills home, "the whole surrounding felt like it was as if you were in the ocean, in a trough between two waves. You had all this greenery, so the challenge was to have the outdoors inside, but not to be overwhelmed with all the sun during the day and the cold at night," she said.

Working with the couple, Palo Alto architect Stephen Atkinson came up with a simple L-shaped design, with a kitchen/great room along one axis and a wing for the two bedrooms and master bathroom, all in just over 2,200 square feet.

The kitchen has a large Caesarstone-topped island, which encases a deep stainless steel sink. All the cabinetry is made of birch veneer, and the refrigerator and dishwasher are faced with the same veneer. Electrical outlets are hidden, and drawers are opened via push latches.

Even Okamoto-Kearney's favorite kitchen feature, the pantry with its pull-out wire shelving by Rev-a-Shelf, is entirely hidden behind doors.

"Terry and Mauri are minimalists, a rare find for an architect. Usually it's the architect dragging the clients toward minimalism," Atkinson said.

Okamoto-Kearney credits her husband with the choice of off-white walls and light birch flooring. "Terry likes monotone," she said.

"It has a kind of Zen peace about the interior; they developed the palette in their earlier remodel," Atkinson added.

Beyond the kitchen is the audio-visual room where the couple watches television. The room also serves as a guest room. It's closed off from the kitchen with glass "barn" doors on sliders.

"It's an exterior door used inside. Because it's exterior, the acoustics are fantastic," Atkinson said, adding that when the doors are open it makes the house seem huge.

Many of the ideas incorporated in the home -- floor-level toe-kick recesses rather than moldings, "reveals" instead of crown molding, where the walls don't quite meet the ceiling -- were inspired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Others came from Atkinson, once the budget was loosened a tad. Large glass sliding doors now extend floor to ceiling with no post at the corner marring the view.

"As time went by, once we had a simple footprint, Terry and Mauri started to relax and make it more luxurious. They changed the ground rules in the best ways, opened the budget yet still managed to save a lot of money because the bones were so simple," Atkinson said.

"They allowed me to put two pieces of steel to get a dramatic open corner. Adding to the simplicity of the L, I added this diagonal axis from the courtyard to the outdoor view."

Other key features that challenged the contractor and raised the costs included pulling the windows indoors by 6 inches, rather than aligning them with the exterior, creating toe kicks instead of baseboard molding and making the wrap-around balcony level with the great-room floor.

Outside, using ipe wood with spacers for exterior horizontal siding that fronts a rain screen made of a Gortex-like vapor barrier, also pushed up the costs.

But the rain screen, inspired by Scandinavian wood construction, creates a breathable building, Kearney said. "We wanted a tight building, but one problem is mold, if it doesn't breathe. This system breathes," he said.

Minimalism is seen in the two bathrooms, each with the same limestone tiles (alternating 12-by-24-inch and 6-by-24-inch) on both the walls and floors. The floor extends into the shower, which has no curb, a trough drain and a glass half-wall separating it from the toilet. The guest bath sports one small round sink, with the single faucet extending from the mirror. The master bathroom features two round sinks and similar hardware.

The bedrooms are again minimalistic, with only a bed, nightstands and floating desks. (The master bedroom does have a huge walk-in closet with a built-in bureau and walls that don't quite reach the ceiling.)

Light generously streams in throughout the house, through clerestory windows, a transom over the master-bedroom door, massive floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors in the great room and narrow floor-to-ceiling windows elsewhere.

With temperature fluctuations easily 40 degrees in a single day, the home was designed to capture passive solar features. There's no air conditioning, and the heat is seldom turned on, Okamoto-Kearney said.

Likewise, landscaping was planned to use both regionally native and drought-resistant plants, but the long-lasting drought is testing the "survival of the fittest," she added.

But the main environmental gift, Atkinson said, was keeping the size modest.

"They could have doubled the square footage. We were thrilled to buck the system and not max out on the square footage for resale. That's a huge gift for an architect, (saying) I only want it as big for our needs. We're building this for ourselves, not for resale.

"The most important driver of the whole project was simply to get the living room high enough to enjoy the view. The view is dramatically better three feet higher," Atkinson said.

"We couldn't bear missing out on the view of the hills," Okamoto-Kearney said.

Other homes on tour include:

Low-rise house (Menlo Park): a re-imagined suburban ranch (4,500 square feet, 4 bedrooms. 3.5 bathrooms) with a three-story tower and roof deck. Architect: Dan Spiegel, Spiegel Aihara Workshop (SAW)

Dyson residence (Portola Valley): renovated midcentury home that opened up the views by creating two A-frames connected by a glass-walled family room (5,300 square feet, 6 bedrooms, 6.5 bathrooms). Architect: Carl Hesse, square three design studios

Erica residence (Portola Valley): a modern courtyard house with an open-floor plan in public areas, private wing clustered toward rear (3,150 square feet, 4 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms). Architect: Ana Williamson

Rolling Hills estate (Saratoga): On the crest of a hill, this contemporary home features passive ventilation and green roofs (12,000 square feet, 9 bedrooms, 10 bathrooms). Architect: Louis Leu.

Included in the tour ticket price is admission to a "Meet the Architects" night on Friday, Sept. 23, 7-8:30 p.m. The event will offer an opportunity to chat with the architects and designers, preview the tour homes and partake of cocktails and light bites. Location will be provided after ticket purchase.


What: Dwell Silicon Valley Home Tour

When: Saturday, Sept. 24, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Five homes in Menlo Park, Portola Valley, Los Altos Hills and Saratoga

Cost: $100



Freelance writer Carol Blitzer can be emailed at

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