Launch Slideshow

Tea Houses

Tea Houses

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    Tim Griffith

    The teahouses sit high up on a hillside and are buffered by foliage.

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    Tim Griffith

    Butt-jointed corners allow the buildings' edges to recede.

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    Tim Griffith

    The project creates and contains a rarefied atmosphere of calm and well-being.

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    Tim Griffith

    The board-formed concrete towers provide a textured contrast to the smooth glass and steel.

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    Tim Griffith

    Earthbound concrete towers let the transparent boxes perch delicately above the site.

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    Tim Griffith

    A skylit full bath connects two of the teahouses.

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    Tim Griffith

    Operable awning windows and surrounding deciduous trees help cool the project during the summer months.

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    Tim Griffith

    The re-used, unfinished floorboards create a rough counterpart to the new cedar ceiling.

swatt | miers architects, emeryville, calif.

The jury rhapsodized about this trio of outbuildings in California’s Silicon Valley, naming it residential architect’s 2010 Project of the Year. “There’s just a clarity and simplicity,” said one judge. “It doesn’t falter.” Architect Robert Swatt, FAIA, and his client envisioned the structures as Western, modern versions of Japanese teahouses, and the panel appreciated this approach. “It’s a contemporary expression of a historic typology,” observed another juror.

All three outbuildings sit uphill from the main residence, a Swatt-designed renovation of a 1960s modern house. Each teahouse serves its own specific purpose. One holds a meditation space and sits off by itself, while the other two—one for sleeping and the other for work-related creative thinking—are connected by a full bath. The buildings display top-notch detailing, from the pristine intersection of materials to the way the glass-and-steel boxes cantilever out from the concrete shafts anchoring them in place.

Those concrete core elements shoulder all of the buildings’ vertical and seismic loads. In doing so, they allow the rest of the project to appear nearly weightless; the glass-and-steel components never touch the ground. Such a clear juxtaposition was essential, according to Swatt, who likens the floating portions to tents and the masonry portions to caves. “It’s that contrast of tent and cave, of light and heavy, that’s important for me,” he says.

The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which finds beauty in imperfection, also informs the teahouses. Rough, natural-looking items such as the board-formed concrete cores and unfinished cedar floorboards provide a counterbalance to the smooth, flawless glass and steel.

The effect is entirely intentional. Swatt had the wooden board forms wire-brushed, so that the wood’s grain would translate over to the poured concrete. And builder Andre Neto and his team salvaged the floorboards from a deck on the original house.

Swatt relished the opportunity to design the teahouses. “They’re just garden structures, so we could be very pure about it,” he says. “It’s just space and light. They’re extremely simple, and are meant to be.” He gives credit to Neto, whom he describes as “phenomenal,” and to interior designer Connie Wong, another integral project team member. The owner’s vision played a crucial role, as well. “This is the opposite of multipurpose,” Swatt says. “They’re special buildings for special purposes. That was [the client’s] poetic idea.”

The jury members remarked on the thought and care that obviously went into the project, which they called “exquisite” and “transcendent.” “It’s lovingly, lovingly developed and detailed,” said one judge. “It’s close to being perfect.”


Project Credits
principal in charge / project architect: Robert Swatt, FAIA, Swatt | Miers Architects, www.swattmiers.com 
general contractor: Andre Neto, Neto Builders, Los Gatos, Calif.
interior designer: Connie Wong, Swatt | Miers Architects
project size: 1,364 square feet
site size: 2 acres
construction cost: Withheld
photography: Tim Griffith, except where noted

Product Specs
bathroom fittings: Hansgrohe www.hansgrohe-usa.com, Lacava www.lacava.com; bathroom fixtures: Duravit USA www.duravit.us; countertops: Concreteworks Studio www.concreteworks.com; flooring (wood): Teakworks4u www.teakworks4u.com; hardware: FSB USA www.fsbusa.com; hvac equipment: Noritz America Corp. www.noritz.com; lighting fixtures: BEGA/US www.bega-us.com, Bruck Lighting Systems www.brucklighting.com, Delta Light USA www.deltalight.com, Pablo Designs www.pablodesigns.com; paints/stains/wall finishes: Benjamin Moore & Co. www.benjaminmoore.com; windows: Fleetwood Windows & Doors www.fleetwoodusa.com, Hope's Windows www.hopeswindows.com; window shades: Lutron Electronics Co. www.lutron.com

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