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Zen and the Art of Architecture

Lydia Lee | June 16, 2016 | Story Architecture

“Everything about this house is very special,” says Alan Ohashi, the architect of a tranquil family compound in Atherton. “It just looks normal.” Indeed, the dwelling bears out the adage that simplicity is hard to achieve. Its refinements reveal themselves only through closer scrutiny—such as the plentiful but balanced natural light, a pleasingly asymmetrical grid of hidden storage and the exterior’s tofu-smooth stucco. Serene by design, the Asian-inflected architecture and landscape showcase the relaxed modernism of Northern California.

The clients—a prominent surgeon and a stay-at-home mom who have a 15-year-old son—acquired the property in 2008 to build their dream home. Encircled by redwoods and hidden down a drive, the 1-acre flag lot is extra-secluded in a town known for its private estates. While grand traditional mansions are supplanting many of the town’s aging California ranch homes, the clients are among a small but growing number of contemporary design fans. Their first home was an Eichler in Palo Alto, where they enjoyed the indoor-outdoor living enabled by the architecture. “We wanted a one-level house with an open design and an understated elegance,” says the husband. “We were also looking for ‘modern but warm,’ which is not always easy to get.”

After an extensive search, the clients connected with Ohashi Design Studio in Emeryville. In particular, they resonated with a modest ranch home that Ohashi had transformed in the East Bay; they appreciated its luminosity and expansiveness. A third-generation Japanese-American who has been practicing architecture in the Bay Area for 30 years, Ohashi says that the Asian influence in his work is subliminal rather than intentional. “But from watching tons of Asian movies, I couldn’t help but appreciate the architecture and how it plays into the storytelling,” he elaborates. “The long, low rooflines; grand verandas; sliding doors; and use of natural materials were all very striking imagery. There was complexity and depth in even the simplest of spaces.”

For the 4,500-square-foot main house, which has four bedrooms and six baths, Ohashi created an uncomplicated layout around a courtyard: The U-shaped floorplan allows every room to receive natural light on at least two sides, and the back of the house opens up completely to the site. “The architecture is all about relating to the exterior and the amazing trees that surround the lot,” says project architect Philip Liang. The design team also followed feng shui principles to encourage positive energy: They placed the pool house/guest cottage on one corner to contain the good chi, and while there is a view of the backyard from the front door, there is no direct egress.

In addition to a plenitude of glass, the living room and bedroom wing have lofty 13-foot-high ceilings, creating a sense of expansiveness even in the small powder rooms. Rows of operable clerestory windows help with both lighting and natural cooling. All the internal doors have transom windows above them, allowing rooms to borrow light. The architecture incorporates other sustainability measures gracefully: The 7.1-kilowatt solar system, which provides all of the home’s electricity, as well as the pool’s solar hot-water system, were strategically placed on the upper rooftops so they could not be viewed from anywhere in the yard below.

The exterior is executed in a disciplined monochromatic palette: White stucco contrasts with dark-gray window frames and roof edge. The interiors are similarly restrained. Subtle variations of natural wood and stone create visual interest in lieu of bright colors and graphic patterns. The clients selected a different species of wood for the built-ins in each room, including teak, wenge and zebrawood. In addition, they visited stone yards throughout the Bay Area to pick out immense slabs for key accent walls: There’s a dramatic “mural” of black marble with white veins by the entry, another of Copenhagen granite leading to the master bedroom and an expanse of book-matched Calacatta marble in the kitchen. Another prime example of how much effort goes into creating simplicity is the floor, which is a seamless plane of poured concrete with no expansion joints, grooves that are typically added to prevent concrete from cracking. The house is furnished with contemporary pieces in neutral shades, including a beige Roche Bobois sofa paired with a Noguchi coffee table in the family room. Shades of Green, a Sausalito-based landscape architecture firm, designed the minimalist landscape, which includes an austere rock garden outside the bedroom wing.

While the architecture is very open, Ohashi also made sure to carve out some intimate gathering areas. The family spends a lot of time in the breakfast nook, as well as an enclosed TV room next to the living room. “We’re used to being always together in our old house, so we gravitate toward these cozier spaces,” says the mom. The teenage son, meanwhile, expresses appreciation for the pool house. “I can have seven guys over for a sleepover,” he says. “And if it gets really loud, I can come back to my room in the house and go to sleep.” Perhaps that’s the true mark of luxury: A house that can accommodate a video-game marathon and still feel as calm as a koi pond.

Originally published in the May issue of Silicon Valley

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