“The only lots left to build on in San Francisco are these impossible lots that nobody can build on,” says architect Craig Steely. Well, almost nobody. Presented with a steep, irregularly shaped corner lot in the city's Bernal Heights neighborhood, Steely produced a design that turned its most challenging features to his advantage. Local zoning allowed for zero lot lines at the front and sides of the house but required a substantial setback at the rear. In a bit of architectural jujitsu, Steely declared the lot's long, sloping side—rather than the narrow, downhill side—its front. That semantic twist allowed him to create a multi-level side yard, which functions like a front yard, simply by calling it a backyard.

A folded, galvanized steel-plate stair at the narrow, downhill end of the building leads from the sidewalk to a terrace with a fountain, whose gentle sound helps mask the noise of nearby traffic. “We also used trees and bamboo that make a rustling sound,” Steely explains. “It becomes white noise that cuts out the freeway sound.” The ceramic-tiled terrace tunnels through the building, serving as sheltered outdoor space flanked by an office and independent in-law apartment. Another flight of outdoor stairs reaches a second terrace at the main living level (for those carrying groceries, an elevator provides a shortcut from the garage). Here the structure wraps around a small internal courtyard, which is open to the street view and the sky and serves as an open-air link between the galley kitchen and the living and dining areas. “The courtyard is open most of the time,” Steely says, “and the owners circulate through that space.”

The building's top-floor master suite, four stories above the sidewalk entry, nestles in the upper branches of an existing mature Monterrey pine. “We took that as our maximum height,” Steely says, “and just tucked the upper floor into it.” The only major space without at-grade access to the yard, the master bedroom enjoys instead a city-spanning vista from its rooftop terrace. But the more private view of the sloping, terraced yard offers its own attractions. In moving into and through the building, Steely points out, “You see the trees from below, and then from alongside, and then from up in the canopy.” By broadening the definition of “backyard,” Steely created a house in which every major room communicates directly with the outdoors. And, as he says, “That never happens in San Francisco.


Craig Steely splits his architecture practice between San Francisco and Hawaii's Big Island. And while the two locales might seem to demand very different approaches, Steely is narrowing that gap. “They really are two separate worlds,” he says, “yet I see a bridge between the two in myself and the work I do.” His San Francisco-hip modernism plays well against the island's volcanic landscape, and its simplicity minimizes maintenance on weather-beaten oceanfront sites.

Meanwhile, his urban work shows growing signs of tropical fever. Given San Francisco's gentle climate, its traditional housing types are surprisingly inward-looking, but Steely works as hard on his outdoor living spaces as those indoors. “Covered outdoor space, like a lanai, is an idea that translates well to any temperate area,” he says. “You get used to having space like that”—and to designing it. “Once you start doing that, it's hard to stop.”