Spring Real Estate 2006

Publication Date: Friday, April 28, 2006

Thoroughly modern Palo Alto?
New homes abandon tradition, look to future

by Terry Tang

Custom and contemporary are the buzzwords Palo Alto homeowners are dropping these days when remodeling.

Amid the Craftsman and Tuscan villa facades, some residents are going thoroughly modern. Others are letting cultural customs serve as the framework for their renovations. For architects, incorporating their clients' idiosyncratic tastes can be the most fun part of the job.

"In a way, you're inventing your own style and detail as opposed to trying to match some traditional Victorian or a Craftsman or some Spanish Mediterranean style," said Carl Hesse, an architect at square three design studios in Palo Alto. "The Arts and Crafts and Bungalow styles -those are still very popular in this local area. Currently, at least for us, next in line would be more contemporary styles."

Aesthetic sensibilities have shifted away from ornate and toward minimalist. Sometimes, minimalism can mean environmentally conscious, or "green," design. People are paying greater attention to what resources are employed. For exteriors, Hesse said, more homeowners have asked about sustainable materials. Instead of the more common roof shingles made from asphalt composition, people settle for metal roofing that is composed mainly of recycled material.

"Green is the new black," said Steve Simpson, founder of Simpson Design Group in Redwood City.

Magazines like Sunset and Dwell, he said, have helped usher in a movement thanks to profiles of eco-centric construction. Whether it's installing energy-saving lights or ordering hardwood that was cultivated in a "way that could be called green," residents will take on Earth-friendly equipment - especially if the extra cost is marginal.

Modern interiors have taken a turn toward simplistic, Hesse surmises, due to pop culture and stores such as IKEA. Having the hip furniture store in the area has shaped Palo Altans' ideas of how to set up house. In the last four years, Hesse has observed more clients expressing interest in non-traditional designs.

Indoors, more modern motifs can be reflected in anything from the layout to the stairs. For example, some residents have eschewed a wood-framed staircase edged by an elaborate balustrade in favor of a steel hand-rail and cable rail system. Risers are constructed from glass or stainless steel.

Destination trips have also inspired off-beat, more contemporary choices. According to Simpson, residents return from vacations and want to recreate the ambience of a high-end hotel or resort. One recent client wanted his house to feel like a day at a tropical island spa, looking "modern and Balinese." The end result included resort fixtures such as expansive tubs and steam showers. Simpson predicts more people will ask for a hybrid of exotic Asian and modern styles.

"A lot of people here work hard and when they get home, they want to feel like they can relax and they're on vacation," Simpson said. "I think it's a trend that's growing."

Allowing spiritual ideologies to drive a home's blueprint may also be on the rise. While feng shui has been part of the Western design vocabulary for more than a decade, Roger Kohler, of Kohler Associates Architects in Palo Alto, has only recently learned about the principles of vaastu.

An ancient form of environmental design rooted in Hinduism, vaastu equates everything from house size to placement of objects with inner peace and health. A Palo Alto couple originally from India was convinced their family problems stemmed from not having a vaastu-tailored home. Collaborating with them, Kohler learned primary tenets like the fact that squares, deemed the most stable structures, are the central basis for all construction.

"Vaastu has requirements due to the shape and the size of the orientation of house and floor plan which tends to be a little bit boxy and that created some problems with the design review," Kohler said.

Fortunately, in vaastu, rectangles are adequate substitutes for squares and cubes. So, Kohler was able to find compromises between the city's requirements and his clients. He anticipates more demand for vaastu homes.

There are also trends that have endured. Craftsman exterior features - large overhangs, front porch, tapered or square columns - still dominate the architectural landscape. Considered a quintessential suburban faÁade, Craftsman has become a "go-to look" for its practicality.

"People sometimes do it because it's easier to get approved if they're looking to get done quickly," Simpson said. "Any place where there's a design review, those type of houses tend to come together quicker with less comment than a modern or Mediterranean."

Some real estate agents advise homeowners not to erect customized abodes with a contemporary bent. They will be left with a narrow market should they ever opt to sell their property.

"I always tell people design something you're comfortable with," Kohler said. "It's your style. The best compliment I get is when [clients] say 'I designed the house.'"

A design fad that has remained widespread is broadening the idea of a central room. Homeowners with families more commonly erode boundaries between the living room, kitchen and breakfast nook. All three areas instead combine into one "great room." To enhance an illusion of open space, clients want the room oriented toward a backyard separated by glass doors.

Simpson thinks more people are finding a great room fashionable living. He has seen other clientele factor in a living room to make their house more marketable, should they ever sell. But they end up with a room that's rarely occupied.

"It's the biggest waste of square footage," he said.

It makes more sense, he said, to have a playroom or office in lieu of a "staged set" nobody enters.

Basements also continue to be popular additions. Besides generating more space in a cost-effective way, basements can have multiple purposes - from media-entertainment center to wine room, or just a place ready for a visiting relative.

"Since 1995 or so, we've done 50 basements," Kohler said. "Basements are the number-one trend for going from a small house to a large house."

The only trend architects probably don't want to see is a tendency to simply copy or cater to the architecture of the neighborhood.

"A good architect can design something different that's complementary to the neighborhood," Simpson said. "Something good that looks different is better than something that looks bad that matches."