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The Great Indoors

Theresa Gonzalez | March 8, 2017 | Story Architecture

Unobstructed views and creating an intimate relationship with nature inspired the vision for Tracy and Fred Wang’s Portola Valley home. Architect Tobin Dougherty, based in Palo Alto, played with topography to gradually elevate the entry and main living space above ground level in order to capture light and landscape through every possible window frame. “You see the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west and the lights of Oakland” to the north, says Tracy from her master-bedroom deck. “It’s a peaceful place.”

When the couple had the opportunity to build their first home from scratch nearly six years ago, their goal was to have all the space they needed for their family of five, but “to make sure it still felt like a small home,” she says. Dougherty succeeded in making the 6,000-square-foot home feel cozy by designing four split-level floors and interconnected rooms that each offer a sense of privacy: Adults can entertain in one area while kids play in another, and their paths never have to cross. “We wanted to have a space for bridge nights or kid sleepovers, but we didn’t want this large room to walk through if that wasn’t happening,” Tracy adds.

Rooms do in fact disappear into the background—two large storage rooms, a wine cellar and laundry room below the main floor were built into the canyon to allow the living spaces to hog all the light. On the ground floor, a playroom for their three kids, ages 13 to 18, leads to an outdoor pool area, just one example of the seemingly borderless spaces that flow in and out of the five-bedroom residence. “We see so many homes today that are so big and luxurious,” says Dougherty, “and this one is a very comfortable family-oriented home that really has a great relationship with the outdoors.”

Dougherty also played with scale and ceiling elevation, intentionally lowering the dining room ceiling to convey a sense of intimacy. “There’s a rhythm created with the elevation changes—it makes it feel like you’re nestled into the canyon,” says Linda Sullivan, the Menlo Park interior designer who complemented Dougherty’s organic architecture with sustainable interior finishes and less-is-more decor—both on the Wangs’ wish list. Sullivan worked with jGoodDesign to create custom glass chandeliers that were scaled just right for the entry and dining area.

Walnut flooring throughout the home was a unanimous decision. “There was something really beautiful about this lot; it just had so much variation,” says Sullivan. Consistency was key too. Walnut appears again in the kitchen cabinetry, bleached for variation and with a strip of cedar to echo the cedar plank ceiling. Drawer pulls, plumbing fixtures and mirrors are all the same style in a range of sizes in kitchen and baths.

The lack of furnishings and fuss was on purpose as well. “We intentionally stayed away from too many decorative elements, letting nature take its course,” says Sullivan. A raw steel fireplace with slices of walnut and a concrete raised hearth take center stage in the living room. Around it, a new Florence Knoll sofa fits right in with two Barcelona chairs that came along for the move. Just one rule applies here: “The living room and dining room are off-limits as far as leaving anything behind,” says Tracy, who prefers clean lines and clear spaces. This draws the whole family into both destinations “because they’re not cluttered with stuff.”

Radiant heating installed on the main floor and LED lighting throughout conserve energy in the net-zero home. Solar panels—nearly invisible thanks to an intelligent roof design—produce 100 percent of the home’s electricity. Concrete overhangs allow the home to stay cool in summer while protecting the materials below, and recycled cedar siding add to the sustainability checklist. “If we were going to use wood, we wanted something that was going to be around for a long time. Old-growth cedar has a very long lifespan so it doesn’t deteriorate over time,” says Dougherty. “People don’t realize that a well-crafted home is also a sustainable quality.”

Perched on the top floor is what Tracy calls her serene getaway: the master suite with bedroom, bath, office and deck occupying the entire wing. “I love the light coming in from seemingly unexpected places at different times of the day and in different ways,” she says, summing up the whole experience of the space. “It’s the house we always wanted.”

Originally published in the March/April issue of Silicon Valley

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