Midway Through Construction, A Custom Home Switches Direction.
It seemed a typical San Francisco story. In 1999 a pair of dot-com millionaires won a ferocious bidding war over a 4,000-square-foot Edwardian-era house in Pacific Heights, the city's most exclusive neighborhood. They started in on their renovation with gusto, hiring architect Charlie Barnett to design an ultra-Modern remodel and addition. For their builder they chose Dan Pelsinger of Matarozzi/Pelsinger, a local company with a sterling reputation. With views of the San Francisco Bay from its sleek, loft-like spaces, the project was going to be a showstopper.
Except, it wasn't. What happened next was another classic San Francisco story—the one about the dot-com that went bust. The owners, suddenly financially strapped, scaled the house back more and more. Finally, in 2001 they had to put the half-finished building up for sale, only partially drywalled and roofed. “All that was left was the front one-third of the house,” says Barnett. “We had remodeled and added on another two-thirds to the back, and it was put on the market as a shell.”
In addition to having to watch clients they liked and respected lose their fortune, he and Pelsinger also had to come to terms with the fact that they probably weren't going to get to see the project through. “We didn't pull our crew off the job because we didn't want to have an abandoned house sitting there,” says Pelsinger. “We're not a big company, and it was very stressful.” They logically assumed that whoever purchased the house would bring in their own architect and builder, so they prepared themselves to lose the project.
Imagine Pelsinger's relief, then, when the couple who finally purchased the half-built home turned out to be a former (and very satisfied) client of his: He'd built a house for the husband back in 1997. The new owners decided to hire Pelsinger as their builder, and after interviewing Barnett and visiting a few of his completed projects, they opted to retain him as their architect, too. But for Barnett and Pelsinger this wasn't going to be a simple case of continuing what they'd started. The home's restored Edwardian façade, above, complements its newly added family and breakfast rooms. The new owners wanted a drastically different style of house than the original clients—traditional rather than Modern, with more discrete rooms as opposed to loft-like spaces. The home's design would have to be scrapped and redone.
The adjustment to a new paradigm was tough, especially for Barnett. “It took me a couple of months to realize the clients were serious about making these changes,” he says. But he rose to the occasion, finding clever solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Since the framing was in place, the rooms would stay where they were, though Pelsinger's crew did have to rip out the drywall in some places to accommodate revamped electrical wiring. The former design called for floor-to-ceiling windows and doors, which had already been installed. Rather than tear them out to accommodate new, more traditional ceiling moldings, Barnett devised a molding that drops down over the tops of the glass. A custom stair detailer restored and reproduced the original railings. Similarly, the kitchen wall had previously been fitted for floating metal-and-glass cabinets in a skylighted niche. He found a way to make the concept palatable to his clients by changing the materials to white-painted wood and old-fashioned crackle glass. Since Matarozzi/Pelsinger has an in-house cabinetmaker, the fix was relatively simple.
In fact, all of the original plan's minimalist materials, such as concrete, metal, and glass, were swapped out in favor of softer elements like wood floors, granite countertops, and tiled bathroom walls. And instead of completely dividing up the open kitchen/ living/dining room, Barnett added headers to give some sense of separation to each space without blocking bay views. He also bumped out the wall between the front hallway and the kitchen, defining that area as its own little alcove. “It was about taking this big, open house and creating more intimate spaces,” he says. The home's street elevation and front rooms were restored, as the former owners had planned, but now some of the restored details, such as a mahogany floor inlay, were extended into the addition.
Along with all the material and woodworking changes, Pelsinger faced formidable engineering challenges. Not only does the site slope precariously, as much of this neighborhood and city tend to do, but the sandy soil was of particularly poor quality. “When this street was built the rubble was dumped downhill, and a lot of it ended up in the backyard,” he says. Rather than stabilize the back of the house using conventional steel sheaths, he followed the Rupiper method, a system of hollow steel screws filled with concrete and drilled into the ground in 10-foot sections, until rock is reached. Using this method saved the clients about $50,000 to $100,000, he estimates, and it took less time than a more conventional process would have. “It's a good situation for when you have a layer of 20 to 30 feet of bad soil,” he says. In order to meet seismic codes and still get the wide lateral zones Barnett's design required, he framed the new portions of the house—the rear two-thirds—with steel. And he excavated under the building to find room for a finished basement and two-car garage, bringing the total of newly added space to 3,000 square feet.
The first and second versions of the plan do share an emphasis on one common element: light. A skylight runs all along the west side of the house, pulling rays of sun deep into the stairwell and hallways. Sandblasted glass windows on the opposite side serve a similar purpose, while preserving the privacy of the residents and their close-by next-door neighbors. On a clear day the bright San Francisco sunlight pours inside, illuminating Matarozzi/Pelsinger's handiwork, Barnett's design finesse, and the clients'vision. It's hard to imagine the house turning out any other way.
Thoughtful details like floating kitchen cabinets, above, and built-in living room bookcases, give the house its blend of livability and panache.
The home's third-floor terrace captures choice views, but it's also vulnerable to punishing winds. “From March to September, this is one of the best places in the world to windsurf,” says Pelsinger, gesturing out to the San Francisco Bay. So Barnett designed a brawny, glass-and-steel windscreen that shields the terrace without taking away its sightlines to the bay. Just in case the air still holds a chill, a wood-burning outdoor fireplace warms things up. It functions in the same way as an indoor fireplace does, though with a stainless steel firebox to prevent rusting.
Underfoot, extra-thick Spanish limestone tiles sit on plastic levelers that lift them away from a waterproof floor membrane. Not only do the levelers allow rainwater to flow under and between the tiles, but their gradually increasing heights help conceal the terrace's slight slope into a central drain. The system possesses added aesthetic and practical benefits: The drain stays out of sight under the limestone, and to reach the membrane for cleaning or repairs all one has to do is lift up the tiles.
With its blend of restored details, new but traditionally styled rooms, and wide-open, high-ceilinged spaces, the Pacific Heights house required a custom builder fluent in the language of both historic and Modern architecture. It had one in Dan Pelsinger. His 50-person, 19-year-old company, which he runs along with Dan Matarozzi, builds mostly Modern residences, with some light commercial work thrown in. His own dwelling, however, happens to be a faithfully restored 1911 Edwardian house in San Francisco. “Some of the architects I work with are surprised that I live in such a traditional house,” he says. “If I were building a new house, it would be very Modern, but if it's a 1911 remodel, I think there needs to be a response to what's there.”
His home does let slip a few clues to its owner's far-ranging tastes. While most of its details are historically accurate, the master bath and finished basement are streamlined, Modern spaces. The mix echoes the architectural diversity of Pelsinger's home turf, where wood-and-glass boxes nestle in comfortably among the city's famous cache of Victorian and Edwardian-style buildings.