Real Estate

Architects' tour showcases cutting-edge designs

Self-guided tour allows attendees to see materials up close

High ceilings, walls of glass, most rooms facing greenery. This is not the home John Shea's father built in 1940 in Old Palo Alto.

But it's the new home on the same spot Shea grew up that will be featured on the American Institute of Architects, Santa Clara Valley's third annual, self-guided Silicon Valley Home Tours on June 3, which will include four other homes on the Midpeninsula.

When Shea inherited his family home in 2006, he and his wife, Carolyn, thought they'd be able to remodel the 1,400-square-foot bungalow to allow them to age in place in his childhood neighborhood. But, John said, "It was obvious that the expense of bringing it up to code would be about equal to starting over."

At first they thought they'd build something that matched the traditional architecture on the street. But, "I had always admired the Eichler open floor plans and wanted one like that," Carolyn said.

After interviewing a number of architects, the couple chose Burlingame-based architect Gary Diebel "because he listened to what we said," Carolyn said. When Diebel asked the Sheas to bring in photos of what they liked, he pointed out that they were all modern.

Diebel designed a single-story home on the 10,000-square-foot lot, with a permeable paver driveway running the length and curving into a three-car garage at the very rear. Dense plantings soften the the front yard, blending the low home with the rest of the block.

Glass is a key building material throughout the house, from the sliding pocket doors separating the public spaces from the bedrooms to the clerestory windows in almost every room.

At the very front of the house, facing the street, is the office. One wall and the opposite corner are clad in aluminum, blending with the window valance. A bathroom, with a 14-foot ceiling, those clerestory windows, honed Calacatta Gold marble on the floor and tub/shower walls and a blue glass bowl sink, sits between the office and the guest bedroom.

The hallway is lined with John Shea's photographs. Here the windows are at floor level, to prevent fading of the artwork.

In the living room, below the very high clerestory windows, sits a circular light shelf. "We wanted to balance how the light comes in," Diebel said.

Another architectural challenge was the desire by the Sheas to keep their furniture, including a tall china cabinet. "We told Gary to build the house around it," John said. (He even managed to incorporate a stained-glass window that they had made for a San Francisco condominium.)

A large piece of art hangs from a flat bar over the fireplace; roll it to the side and it reveals the flat-screen TV.

Radiant heating was used throughout the house, and no air conditioning is required, since there is adequate cross-ventilation from the many windows. Most of the flooring is wide-planked walnut.

Two wide openings lead to the kitchen, which features "rain" glass windows over the sink and stovetop, offering privacy from their nearby neighbor. It took two-and-a-half slabs of blue granite to create the long countertops, which complement the darker porcelain tile flooring and stainless-steel appliances.

"There's enough light so we can have dark flooring," Diebel added.

On the other side of the public spaces is the laundry room and master-bedroom suite, which has a high-enough ceiling to accommodate the couple's antique hanging lamps. "They go with us where we go," Carolyn said.

The master bathroom features a sink in each vanity, with granite counters and honed porcelain tile floors. With a nod to aging in place, there's no curb to the shower, and the bottom is a non-slick rock pattern.

Sliding glass doors lead outside. A key piece of landscaping is a 60-foot-plus redwood that John recalls his dad planting from a seedling purchased from the Boy Scouts more than 50 years ago.

Other homes, which range from 2,200 to 10,000 square feet, on the tour include:

• A re-interpretation of a "farmhouse style" home in Palo Alto (Fergus Garber Young Architects, Palo Alto).

• A midcentury-influenced townhome with a skylit, steel staircase in Menlo Park (John Lum Architecture, San Francisco).

• A double-gabled Eichler remodel in Mountain View (Klopf Architecture, San Francisco).

• A structure that interlocks with the land in Portola Valley (Square Three Design Studios, Palo Alto).

The focus of the self-guided tour is to walk through the homes, see the materials up close and to meet the architects, who will be on hand at all five homes.

Freelance writer Carol Blitzer can be emailed at

What: AIA Silicon Valley Home Tours

When: Saturday, June 3, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Five homes in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View and Portola Valley

Cost: $75 general admission; AIA members $59 before June 1 (Purchase tickets here)

Info: 408-298-0611;; [

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