Houzz is glad to partner with the AIASF and cover their upcoming Marin Living Home Tours
on May 15. Comment on this ideabook for your chance to win a ticket to the tour. See more details at the end of this interview.
This house is called The Radius House. It was originally designed by Daniel Leibermann, a former Taliesin West student of Frank Lloyd Wright, and built in 1960. The architect and the owners wanted to honor the original design while adding modern elements, which can be a tricky task. They met the challenge and found ingenious solutions that you'll be able to see for yourself on the tour. Thank you to architect Vivian Dwyer, of Dwyer Design, for taking the time to tell us more about this complicated renovation project.
This looks like an iconic house. Can you tell us a little bit about Leiberman's original design?
This 52-year-old house is just coming of age, and is iconic for its anti-style. It evolves from it’s efficiency in its structural form, size, use of materials, and use of space. It is designed with a primitive and minimal approach to the necessary protection from the natural elements but still responding and engaging them, not ignoring them. What has been referred to as “organic” now is seen as a highly rational movement of modernism.
Daniel grew up surrounded by engineers and doctors, as well as having a background in navel design that inspired his designs to be structurally efficient with economic form. He also strongly believed in using local and recycled materials, and describes the process of his designs as the result of ecological forces and nature. In this case, the site is tight with a steep slope, so the circular form of the house is the most efficient and economic structure. The house is surprisingly small, but by taking advantage of height and large glass windows he is able to bring in more light and the space feels airy and comfortable. The different levels of the house as well as the connection to the outside create the illusion of a larger house.
What condition was the house in when you came on board, and what kinds of modern improvements did it need?
Most of the house was in its original state with a few modifications from previous owners. The systems were still functioning, but they needed to be updated, particularly the electric and lighting layout. It was agreed that the new pieces should be modern and sexy. The kitchen needed new appliances and cabinets, with a more efficient functional layout achieved by building a longer cantilevered island that also serves as storage at the entry. We refurbished all the materials and coated the brick walls with white plaster achieving a more contemporary look throughout. We reorganized the small chopped up bedroom and bathroom spaces by removing partitions to achieve a more open, modern look.
How did you approach honoring the original design while planning the necessary changes? Was this process intimidating?
It was obvious that the work would be like delicate surgery. We wanted to make it modern and sexy while honoring the original design and to be inspired by it. Every change we made had many layers of things it affected. For example, the existing concrete floors had radiant heat, which dictated that the plumbing had to remain in similar locations. By rotating and adjusting the plumbing we were able to achieve a new layout that worked better for the needs of the client. The new lighting was a big ordeal as we could not recess the lights, and in order to run the appropriate wiring throughout we had to redo the roof from the exterior. This also gave us an opportunity to replace all the skylights making some operable. This process was not as much intimidating as it was tedious. It required many hours of coordination with all the members of our team to ensure that the design remained in tact.
Please tell us a bit about the site - what is the relationship between the house and the site?
The site is steep, sloping away from the dirt road surrounded by towering redwoods. The house is tucked into the sloped site midway, with only the roof being visible from the road making the house very private and unobtrusive. The site dictates the shape, size, interior levels, and solar orientation. A long curved retaining wall is the result of the most efficient structure to resist the forces of the sloped earth. The surprisingly small size of the 1,000 sq. ft. house is dictated by the setbacks and sloped site. A variation of interior levels respond to the way you physically connect to the exterior. A solar orientation similar to a hyperbolic lens is experienced from inside leaning into the hill and then opening up to the views as the slope falls away. This visual connection to the outdoors makes the house feel spacious.
I'm intrigued by the stone staircase you added - please tell us about it and its relationship to the site.
Originally recycled railroad tiebacks were used throughout the site as stairs. In this remodel we decided to upgrade to a more stable permanent stair system. A dry stack stone stair leads from the carport to the landing at the clerestory level following the contours of the sloped site. The large stone fireplace wall in the house inspired the use of dry stack stone. Throughout Daniel’s work there are always magnificent fireplaces and stone work. The wide, radiating stone stairs that lead to the entrance mimic the layout of the original tiebacks. They look like sculpture rather than stairs.
Most of the materials of the original house were recycled and/or local. What kinds of materials, local sources, and/or craftsmen did you find for the remodel?
As much as possible, the contractor, the client and I kept true to Daniel’s use of local or recycled materials and craftspeople. Since there is no drywall or paint in the entire project, everything required a craftsman, and we encountered local people along the way that felt like a good fit. We reused materials that had been removed for example the wood strips on the entry door made an ordinary flat door interesting with shadows and texture. Local craftspeople were utilized to make the custom concrete tub, metal thresholds, cabinetry, custom wood furniture, and plaster work. The concrete floors were re-stained and refinished, and the wood rafters and ceiling were wire-brushed and waxed.
When designing residences, what kinds of features do you feel make a house a home?
To me, a house is a machine for living, and it only becomes a home when it’s occupied. The inhabitants living in the space are what give it life. That said, I believe the proportion of space, the connections between spaces and the relationship between inside and outside are integral to a comfortable home. Natural light, attention to details, and an expressive use of materials all come into play as I integrate the client’s needs and desires into a house.
Please tell those attending the tour some of your favorite details and/or features that they should take notice of while on the tour.
There are many unique existing and new details to focus on. Original details and features of interest include
1) The WWII airplane glass shelves in the canted sloped retaining wall. They extend from the inside to the outside catching the daylight and illuminating a bright green on the inside.
2) Wedge shaped fins at the window mullions. Nothing is square, but instead dynamic.
3) The large river rock at the base of the fireplace, literally bringing the outside in.
4) The central structural column with radiating joists.
The new details and features include
1) The existing oval skylights now clad with copper edges. The spots of light move across the surfaces of the house acting like a clock.
2) The curved metal thresholds with pivot hinged doors. They allow the doors to function without taking away from the sculptural quality of the curved wood wall.
3) A hidden sliding wall panel detailed at the edge to fit against the rough stone surface when closed.
4) Custom white concrete tub with radiant heat wrapping it keeping it warm at all times.
5) A small hidden trapezoidal door to the exterior located close to the bedroom sink.
6) The dry stack stone artfully placed along the walkway visible through the clerestory of the main living space.
Thank you so much for taking the time to show us this remarkable home!
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For your chance to win the ticket to the Marin Living Home Tours, comment on this interview by Thursday, May 13, at 5pm EST.