It Takes A VillageAuthor:Lindsey Shook
The creative forces behind this home in Marin can be compared to some of design’s most influential visionaries.
In 1919, Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school, was pronouncing: “Architects, painters and sculptors, we must all turn to the crafts . . . Let us conceive, consider and create together the new building of the future.” Today, a contemporary group of Bay Area–based idealists are embracing those tenets to create buildings that are significantly elevating the standards of residential design.
“We are breaking down the formal designer-artist-craftsman barriers; we are all putting aside egos and getting our hands dirty—strapping on tool belts, firing up kilns, and teaching and sharing among our community,” says contractor Michael McDonald, founder of Oakland’s McDonald Construction and the design-build firm Margarido Group. McDonald is referring to the collective and deeply creative spirit of design and architecture that he and a cadre of local artists, craftspeople, builders and architects have embraced. If anyone doubts that these highly improvisational (“We don’t over-design any detail too far in advance because we want the design process to evolve and breathe,” says McDonald), collaborative (from “tribe” to “village” to “partners,” everyone on the site has their own word for the close-knit team), environmentally conscious (“Sustainability is just baked into our projects because it makes sense,” he says), and somewhat old-school (a handshake and a beer may very well take the place of a contract) methods have a place today, there are a few projects by this growing collective that will win them over. The latest is the 2,116-square-foot Mill Valley home of Scott and Tracy Lee.
The four-story house steps up a steep hillside. Western red cedar siding complements the surrounding shingle-style homes, many of which are nearing a century old, but this house looks firmly into the future. Cantilevered steel-and-concrete balconies reach out to meet the live oaks, while covered porches are wrapped in strips of cedar—their geometry interrupted often for wide windows and walls of glass. The interiors are a curated mix of architectural symmetry, pleasingly imperfect craftsmanship and left-brain artistic influence. It’s clear that many minds and talents were at work here.
The leaders of this inspired pack are the Lees. Scott is the president of SB Architects, and Tracy is the vice president of spa development for Auberge Resorts. The two forged their own creative and personal partnership in 2002 while working on the design of Calistoga Ranch. In 2005, after they got married, they purchased the lot in Mill Valley. Personable and down-to-earth, the couple stirred the spirit of the community early on with their plans for the house, which Scott designed. When the project got held up in a seemingly never-ending series of bureaucratic delays, a mini-mob of their neighbors marched down to city hall to convince officials to let them start construction.
The Lees’ ability to rally the troops was matched by McDonald, who was the force behind the LEED Platinum–certified Margarido house, his innovative East Bay residence, which has been lauded for both its good looks and green features. When the Lees first met McDonald, it was at a party at the Margarido house. “He had a beehive of people around him,” remembers Scott. “They were all eagerly asking him questions, looking for him to impart his wisdom on how to pull off such an incredible project.”
Dramatic transitional spaces include a covered porch on the first floor that separates the main entry from a secluded guest suite, and a four-story stairwell featuring large steel lanterns suspended from thick nautical ropes.
McDonald and the Lees had an immediate rapport. “As soon as we found Mike, building this house became so much more fun,” says Tracy. The first order of business was compiling the team. As he did for the Margarido house, McDonald encouraged the Lees to draw from the local community of artists, craftspeople and designers, and to bring them on board not to create a predefined product, but to make the team an integral part of the design process. Despite his professional role as the architect, Scott was excited to yield some of the control to others, as long as they were the right people. “We needed the whole team to share in this common vision,” says Scott. “We couldn’t have any outliers.”
Designer Erin Martin was a perfect fit. She had previously interviewed with Scott for a hotel project, her aesthetic gracefully melded up-to-the-minute style with a rustic vibe, and she was deeply rooted in a community of craftspeople with whom she regularly collaborated. “I’m very loyal that way,” says Martin. “When you work with the same group of people it’s almost like you don’t have to speak anymore, your eyes just crash, you scribble off a doodle and they know exactly what your vision is.” Her “tribe,” as she calls it, includes the high priest of salvaged wood, Evan Shively—a former chef and Harvard grad who has retreated to his West Marin workshop to work magic with fallen cypress, Monterey walnut, redwood and California bay laurel—and Brian Kennedy, a Lake County metal artist who creates oversize, intricately detailed pieces from materials including steel, wire and tile grout.
McDonald suggested Chris French, a metalworker who had worked extensively on the Margarido house. French, who started his practice in another congregation of creativity, Peter Voulkos’s Oakland studio complex known as “the Dome,” would execute the dramatic steel staircase, the exterior railings and other metal detailing throughout the house. Concreteworks founder Mark Rogero had also worked closely with McDonald, and was brought in to create his custom concrete tubs, sinks and other architectural elements. In addition, McDonald came with a mile-long list of vendors whom he knew to be pioneering in their sustainability practices, innovative in their designs and willing to experiment if the right project came along.
The house that this “village” built is one that the whole neighborhood can admire. Concrete steps bordered by a stacked-stone wall lead up to a covered porch that has a raw wood-slab swing suspended from a heavy industrial chain. The central staircase is visible as soon as you enter the house. Blackened steel railings and American black walnut steps zigzag up four floors. The most dramatic element in the stairwell is the lighting: Four large steel-mesh lanterns are suspended by Martin’s signature thick ropes.
The steep site called for a vertical design, with little more than 500 square feet of interior space on each of the first and second floors. A garage and wine cellar make up the ground floor, and the first contains a guest suite and rooms for the couple’s two daughters. The master suite occupies the second floor.
The modestly sized master bedroom is made luxurious with a wall upholstered in cowhide and a custom white coverlet of stitched-together Coyuchi bath towels. The bed is flanked by two massive cabinets by Kennedy, which almost seem alive with their not-quite-perfect pattern of raised black ridges. “It’s like the bark of a tree: chaotic, yet orderly,” says Kennedy, who made steel frames, covered them with wide strips of wire and then used heavy-duty black grout to cover the entire piece, resulting in the unique texture. Sliding glass doors instantly transform the cozy bedroom into a spacious indoor/outdoor living area, with a terrace that is complete with heat lamps, built-in seating and an outdoor concrete tub with views across the Bay to San Francisco. Martin chose a few simple yet striking furnishings for this outdoor space, including a driftwood-like bench courtesy of Shively alongside the tub.
The day-to-day living happens on the top floor, in a lofty open space that blurs the line between indoors and out. The main room contains the kitchen, raised on a stage of concrete that continues up to become a custom island and countertop fitted with a deep sink; the dining room, anchored by an eight-foot-long dining table accompanied by vintage Italian leather chairs; and the living room, which features a fireplace framed by Kennedy’s gracefully enlivening metal-work. Glass sliders are on two walls, most noticeably at the front, where yet another terrace beckons, but also along the west side of the kitchen, where they slide open to a covered, open-air lounge. Martin and Rogero collaborated to outfit this space with an outdoor kitchen, built-in banquettes and a concrete firepit. “I love this room because you can spill your wine on the floor and light things on fire, and it’s all good,” says Martin of the durable concrete floors.
The kitchen island is the family’s favorite spot for breakfast, when they might spy a deer out the back window.
The abundance of places throughout the home to sit, eat, drink, converse and be together may reflect the process through which it was built. “Rather than a model where the architect is central and infallible, our movement—if that’s what this is—puts the architect at the same table with the owner, builder, key vendors, craftspeople and artisans,” says McDonald.
And just as the power of the Bauhaus school extended beyond buildings—from typography to furniture to fine art—those involved in what could be called the “Bay Area Bauhaus Movement” see no limits to the power of craft and collaboration. “There is so much passion behind this that I can’t help but think bigger—about schools and hospitals and the possibility to change the way things are done through design,” says Martin. Until then, she is content with the knowledge that the work she and her fellow villagers are doing puts their passions to good and enduring use. “I’ve come to realize that everything that’s lasted in architecture and design are the things that people have put their hearts into.”
The buoy’s other half can be found in the open-air lounge, hanging above a hide-covered ottoman.
Tracy was clearly influenced by her career in spa development when it came time to design her own bathroom. Touches of luxury include a Carrara marble countertop (above) and an outdoor tub by Concreteworks.
“We envisioned living in a modern cabin,” says Tracy. In the living room that meant an overstuffed sofa keeps company with bold artwork and a pair of Turkish Crate chairs by St. Helena furniture designer Daniel Hale.
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