Designer and concrete guru Fu-Tung Cheng believes his chosen medium satisfies a primal human need. “Emotionally, people are fond of solidity,” he explains. “Concrete has that quality about it.” The owners of this modern beauty in Menlo Park, Calif., initially came to him for a remodel to their existing house. Cheng and his team did their best to find a way to rework it, but they couldn’t reconcile its awkward layout with the clients’ desire for indoor-outdoor spaces and other programmatic requests. “As much as I like to recycle, and I do, it just didn’t make sense to remodel,” says Cheng, who is known for incorporating found objects into concrete floors, walls, and counters.
He convinced the couple to let him design a new house for them and their two children. Its mostly concrete structure would need no finish material, inside or out. “The house has none of the layering that usually takes place, none of the veneers—stucco, plaster or sheetrock, paint,” Cheng says. This strategy had budgetary benefits, but it also contributed to the sturdy, monolithic feeling he wanted to evoke. “By having walls that are the same on the interior and exterior, you get that sense in the building,” he says.
The home’s slipcast main walls are 12-inch-thick concrete, poured around boards of 2-inch-thick rigid foam insulation. Cheng worked with general contractor Dennis Carlson, superintendent Chuck Hunt, and concrete contractor Richard Sullivan to devise custom, plastic-on-plywood forms that would deliver a smooth, polished texture. Each form measured 4 feet by 8 feet; after pouring one wall segment, the team would have to wait 10 days for it to dry before they could pour on top of it. Though time-consuming, this process allowed Cheng to easily mix in blue and gold pigments during the pour, creating natural-looking striations of color. It also provided him with joints spaced every 4 feet, just as he had envisioned.
The concrete floor and foundation went in first, though, so the walls would have something to sit on. The 18-inch mat slab took 17 hours to pour and nearly two weeks to set. (Its extra thickness and 25 percent flyash component added to the usual drying time.) Once the floor dried, a good polishing with a diamond grinder lent it a low sheen, and in some spots exposed colored glass, semi-precious stones, and other embedded items. Steel post-tensioning strengthened the roof structure, helping the project meet strict local seismic standards.
Textural contrasts are crucial to the home’s aesthetic and practical success. A large section of an exterior wall features purposely rough, board-formed concrete, juxtaposed against its silky slipcast counterpart. And wood reclaimed from old olive barrels frames some of the home’s private spaces, adding a level of warmth to the overall composition. Inside, colored Japanese plaster embedded with wood fibers creates a softer (and more acoustically friendly) counterpart to the concrete. “Fu-Tung’s designs are stunning when they’re done,” Hunt says. “He takes simple materials and makes art out of them.”
Builder: D. Carlson Construction, Los Gatos, Calif.
Designer: Cheng Design, Berkeley, Calif.
Concrete contractor: FWS Construction, Lodi, Calif.
Landscape designer: Ron Emerson Garden Designs, La Honda, Calif.
Living space: 4,100 square feet
Site: 0.3 acre
Construction cost: Withheld
Photographer: Matthew Millman
Resources:Bathroom fittings: Dornbracht Americas, Hansgrohe, VOLA; Bathroom fixtures: IKEA, Kohler, Toto USA; Cooktop: Gaggenau; Countertops: Geocrete; Dishwasher: Miele; Doors (patio): NanaWall Systems; Flooring (tile): Ann Sacks, Walker Zanger, Waterworks; Flooring (wood): Plyboo; Garbage disposal: InSinkErator; Hardware: FSB; Kitchen cabinets: Alno; Kitchen fittings: KWC, Danze; Kitchen fixtures: Elkay, Franke; Lighting fixtures: Taller Uno, Studio Tecnico, Shaper, Elco, Lutron; Oven: Wolf; Paints/stains/wall finishes: Benjamin Moore; Range hood: Zephyr; Refrigerators: Sub-Zero; Skylights: Solatube; Windows: Bonelli Windows & Doors.