Adding on and remodeling a home on the National Register of Historic Places is a bit like building a house inside an eggshell.
The fragile façade of the corner house had to be carefully preserved, while structural reinforcement work — concrete, wood framing with steel beams, steel paneling — took place inside. That's what Hui Tan and Fan Yang discovered when they took on building their dream home on the edge of Crescent Park, near downtown Palo Alto.
The 1918 Craftsman home, recognized as an archetypal example of the California bungalow of the 1920s, wasn't quite big enough to accommodate the couple, their two small children and Yang's father. They called on Palo Alto architect Martin Bernstein to figure out how they could maximize space, while not changing the footprint or the general look of the exterior.
"The main focus was keeping the exterior authentic" while creating "simple elegance" with a more contemporary interior, Bernstein said.
The standards for historic rehabilitation are very strict, he added. A key requirement is that the new work be differentiated yet compatible with the old. He accomplished that by setting back and scaling down the second story. Window shapes and roof angles mirror the first floor.
The whole project was a balancing act between retaining the flavor of the old while creating a space with up-to-date amenities.
It was a balance between "what we wanted and what was allowed," Yang said. Ideally, they would have had 10-foot ceilings on the first floor, but that would have forced a change to the exterior. What they got were 9-footers, with just enough space between the floors to contain wiring, plumbing and flues.
Inside, all the walls are painted a neutral pale gray, with gray-washed engineered flooring throughout. Passing through the living room, which retained its original tile-surround fireplace, now painted a matte black, one goes through french doors to the dining area and kitchen.
The highlight of the new kitchen is a huge island, topped with an eye-catching slab of Cambria quartz (Bentley pattern) and surrounded by four counter-height chairs. A small sink sits in one corner, easily enabling more than one cook to participate in meal prep.
"We work together; it's faster," Tan said. "We have a big family and use a lot of dishes each day," she added, pointing out the two Bosch dishwashers.
Some serious cooking can take place here, with a deep stainless steel Axor sink, eight-burner Wolf range and SubZero refrigerator. The kitchen is wired for both 110- and 220-volt appliances, and Tan plans to bring in some international appliances in the future.
White pre-finished custom cabinets by Columbia were used in the kitchen, as well as in the five-plus bathrooms.
Yang's father, who requires a walker, has his own bedroom suite, not far from the kitchen. A second bedroom downstairs, also with its own bathroom, functions as a home office.
Down the stairs is a fully finished basement containing a large playroom/family room as well as storage and utilities.
Upstairs, each bedroom has its own bathroom and a roomy closet, while the master bedroom also has a small balcony overlooking the backyard. A bay window with seating looks out on a neighbor, but frosted glass assures privacy.
The master bathroom seems to have rooms within rooms, with a toilet behind one door and an oval tub sitting in a shower room, complete with rain shower head.
The washer and dryer are conveniently located in the upstairs hallway, with easy access to the three bedrooms. Tucked into the wide hallway is plenty of storage space.
Landscaping includes paved hardscape in front, as well as plantings near the new low fence (since the house is on a corner).
Their new two-car garage sits around the corner, and there's still room to add an accessory dwelling unit behind it. The garage is already wired and plumbed.
Contractor Andrew Li called the project "one of the most challenging": He needed to build new walls and reinforce the foundation while not disturbing the building's façade.
"I also had to make the interior more efficient" by hiding the central air conditioning and adding a tankless water heater. "We didn't waste any space," he said. They also used spray foam insulation to meet California's green criteria.
As for the "eggshell" exterior, Li said the rules aren't so strict that minor repairs are not allowed; to accommodate high-quality waterproofing, they ultimately added an extra stucco coating over the existing one, matching the same texture.
"It's not too modern or too detailed," Yang said.
"We wanted to be comfortable, not fancy. Now it's very low-key, and we got what we wanted," Tan said.
Architect: Martin Bernstein, Palo Alto, San Francisco, 650-387-1000.
Building contractor: Andrew Li, AIM Consolutions Inc., Burlingame, 650-918-8715.
Tile: Bedrosians Tile & Stone, San Jose.
Goal of project: Add bedrooms, bathrooms, new kitchen — all within historic framework Year house built: 1918 Size of home, lot: Was 1,700-sq-ft house (3 bd, 2 baths) on 9,000- sq-ft lot; now 2,950-sq-ft house (5 bd, 5.5 baths) plus two-car garage and finished basement Time to complete: About 4 years (2 years for permitting) .
Budget: "Over budget," about $300/square foot.
View more stories on our Summer 2021 Home + Garden Design publication.