Can a house be five levels but all on one story? It sounds like a riddle, but in fact the answer to that question was the solution to the design challenge of Marc and Elaine Gradman’s vacation home in Inverness Park, California. According to Robert Swatt, principal of Emeryville, California-based firm Swatt Architects, the steeply upsloped site dictated the unusual design solution. “I like to say that this house tiptoes on the land,” says Swatt about the 2,515-square-foot, three-bedroom home. "This plot had very old cedar trees and natural retaining walls that we did not want to disturb. Our goal was to work with the land."
The Gradmans, who have two grown children and live most of the time in nearby Palo Alto, California, didn’t have too many demands for their second home, other than that it be relatively small, with a modern aesthetic, easy access to the beautiful forest views to the southwest and to Tomales Bay to the north, and that the color palette for materials be muted and complementary to the natural surroundings. Like “threading a needle,” Swatt and his team began by carefully creating a switchback road to bring materials up to the site—60 feet above the street—which would later be the only access to the house. A common structure—pier and beam—supports an unusually laid out plan, which allowed Swatt to design each of the five levels at grade. “Every major space has access to the outdoors,” he says, “And because each level is at grade we could build terraces instead of decks, which meant much less of an impact on the land.”
The main entrance to the house is actually at the middle levels, vertically, with bedroom up a half flight of stairs, the living room down a few stairs, the dining area lower and the kitchen down a few more stairs. “One of the biggest surprises for me was the kitchen,” says Elaine Gradman. “When I saw it on the plans as the lowest room in the house, four steps down from the dining room, I thought, oh no, it will feel like a dungeon. I couldn’t have been more surprised. The view from that room—the town of Point Reyes Station and the hills beyond, the wetlands of Tomales Bay and Lagunitas Creek, the Douglas Fir forest, being able to see the sun rise over the hills in the morning, the corner window that allows no interruption in the visibility—makes it the most special room to me. The colors of the kitchen, the yellow, the blue-grey cabinets, the black granite, all reflect the hills, the sun, the water, and the special foggy atmosphere of West Marin.”
To bring that perfect level of sunlight in, Swatt created a circulation corridor with a linear skylight running down the entire length of the home. “Normally we deal with residences designed with narrow wings with circulation space to one side that serves the spaces on the other side,” he says. “Not this house. We wanted to bring in maximum light, but also shade where appropriate, so we built the cantilevered overhang that shoots out through the space and above the terrace outside the living room. It gives a real horizontality to the space.” Glulam beams of Douglas fir provide support for the overhang, while horizontal cedar planks clad other exterior areas—those not clad in charcoal-gray stucco. Cast-in-place concrete makes up terraces, and all outdoor areas are left without any decorative landscaping—indigenous plantings only.
“You can only truly appreciate the house from the inside looking out,” says Gradman. “Seeing it from the outside, you can’t fully appreciate the volume, the levels, and the views of the surrounding natural landscape. By walking through the house, up and down the ever changing levels, you are constantly exposed to a view of something new. As you climb the stairs, you are able to see higher and higher above the usual level of the average room. Your eye travels up and out and over the hills. There is no sense of confinement, only a feeling of expanse. In this house, every time you turn around, you see out of some window, corner, or skylight to all the beauty surrounding you. It truly does feel like a treehouse. You are tucked and perched all at the same time.”
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