For some of us, our Sunday afternoons are spent touring open houses for sale. James and I have recently waded into the real estate market, hoping to follow up on the success of our first home at The Sea Ranch. I try to keep a low profile regarding what I do for a living when touring homes. Something about finding out that I’m a design professional is irresistible to real estate agents, and I soon find myself being dragged to the far corners of the house to offer my opinion if a wall is in fact structural. It’s generally not unbearable, except for that one agent who cornered me and described in excruciating detail how she’d tear out the interiors of a beautiful, intact midcentury home and replace them with her "vision".
One of the real pleasures of touring homes that are for sale is the opportunity to see homes designed by some of the notable Bay Area architects in person. Last year's highlight was touring a home Joseph Esherick designed for psychoanalyst Gordon Bermak and his wife Dolores in 1963. In my mind, the home is one of the best works by Esherick and his office, and this home was skillfully represented by Andrea Gordon at Red Oak Realty, who understood the home, and didn't paint the woodwork out to "give the home a wider appeal".
Esherick and his office elegantly solved the challenges that come with building on an extraordinarily steep hillside lot in Oakland that faces the relentless glare of the afternoon sun in the east. The home elegantly responds to the wooded lot, evoking a treehouse made of rough sawn wood and glass that is supported by tree trunks (complete with branches) made from concrete. Lore has it that the Bermak's insisted no trees be cut while building the house.
In reading about Esherick's approach to the project, I couldn't help note that Framestudio shares many of the same challenges, in addition to reaching for similar solutions that Esherick did. A few examples.
Design process. Esherick’s design process included weekly meetings with a client who had strong opinions about the site, specifically incorporating the home into the trees on the site. For Framestudio, close collaboration with our client and our consultants is key, and this home, with its unique structural system, is a great example of what can be created from a melding of the minds of a talented structural engineer and architecture.
Approach to a limited budget. The appeal of this home comes from natural light, views, and soaring public spaces rather than relying on luxury materials. Esherick used understated, off the shelf products like resawn plywood siding and standard windows to keep costs down. Rumor has it he even used chicken wire for the exterior railings. At Framestudio, we prescribe to the notion that if you get the space, the natural light and the views correct, the finish materials need not be expensive. Remember that saying about putting lipstick on a pig?
Future-proofing. Like our Esherick Mini-Mod project up at the Sea Ranch, this home looked towards the future by providing the infrastructure for adding additional bedrooms and bathrooms in the space under the home when it was built. With construction costs soaring, we find that planning for the future and building in phases is an effective way to manage tight budgets.
Clever approaches to code. For us architects, this home is important because it combines a vernacular style of homes constructed from wood with a concrete structural system done in a Brutalist style. Peter Doge, one of Esherick’s partners wrote that they explored using wood poles, however with all the cross bracing required, it became too visually complex. The H shaped concrete "bent" structural system not only supports the west end of the house, but the double posts cleverly support the stacked concrete fireplaces, which satisfied the building code of the day which dictated that all chimneys (including those with steel chimney flues) be carried in masonry to the ground. Code restrictions can often make us feel like our hands are tied, but we’ve found that if we determine what the intent of the code is, we can often come up with alternative solutions that often turn into a design opportunity like this.
Seems the challenges of building a home have not changed much since the 1960s. While James and I are in the market for a new home, it wasn’t the harsh reality of a $2m price tag that kept us from making an offer. “We already have one house by Esherick,” remarked James. “Don’t you think the next house should be designed by someone else?”
James is right, we only need one Esherick. Thanks for helping me mark this one off the list.