Case Study: Cabin in the Woods by Richardson Pribuss Architects

The logs were long gone by the time Richardson Pribuss Architects was invited to renovate this 1,600-square-foot cabin, the last of four original log homes built among Mill Valley’s second-growth redwoods. The year is unknown, but it was likely built in the decade or two after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, when many urbanites fled to Mill Valley and never left, and others discovered it as a sweet summertime escape. What did remain of the original cabin was a distinctive triple-gable roof, one gable hidden by a shed-roof bedroom addition; and an imposing, rounded-stone fireplace that severed interior sightlines and views of a nearby creek.

“The house had been renovated one too many times,” says Heidi Richardson, FAIA, who got hold of the previous renovation drawings. “The last owner added a carport that partially blocked the view of the house from the street. And because they didn’t change the entry approach, people were forced to walk through the carport and down to the front porch.” 

Heidi and partner Andrew Pribuss, AIA, are experts at reimagining a house’s relationship to the land—and navigating Mill Valley’s complex building codes to enhance those connections. Most of their work is based here, thanks to an abundance of tech industry clients with strong environmental ideals and deep pockets. The new owners of this cabin, however, are New York artists, empty nesters who spend part of the year on the West Coast. They weren’t interested in a teardown or expansion, nor would such invasive interventions have been allowed. The challenge, then, was to bring the building up to 21st-century standards and rework its visual and physical connections to the site.

Spatial Shifts

As part of the gut renovation, the architects’ first site-strategy move was to improve the approach from the street. They stabilized the carport foundation and built a back wall. A new entry path along the side of the carport steps down to the front porch, where the grade was raised to mediate the slope. “It was the biggest move we made, besides restoring those three gables,” Heidi says. “It was very simple, but it made all the difference. After that, the rest of it kind of fell into place.”

At the front of the house, they pulled back the addition’s shed roof and rebuilt the original third gable. Under the middle gable, the old entryway was reclaimed for a larger kitchen and the front door shifted to the right-side gable. Now, the two left gables define the public area: kitchen, dining, and living room. These moves sacrificed a bedroom but added a new entry core containing a mudroom fitted with a bench and cubbies, and a laundry room behind it. Down the hall to the right of the entry are two bedrooms with en suite baths. “This was more of a subtraction project in some ways, getting rid of these odd entry pieces and rooflines and then restoring it to a simpler form,” Heidi says. “Of course, we added those big windows.”

In many rooms, the steel windows go right down to the floor, opening the house to the forest and creek. Chosen for their low profile, they bend up into the roof in the living room, dining room, and primary bedroom. “In a redwood grove, bringing in natural light is required; it was pretty dark before we did that,” Heidi says. “The window at the sofa is the obvious place you’d sit in the house, but you never saw the creek from there. Now you can see the quaint bridge over the creek, and the idea was to carry the glass up and over so you could feel you’re in the middle of nature.” 

When the cost for such a single-unit glazing system proved prohibitive, the architects devised a steel lintel that ties the window and skylight glass plates together. “The window manufacturer didn’t do skylights, so we ended up having an artisan metalworker create frames that screwed into the hemlock ceilings at the same profiles and dimensions to make the skylight and window look like they’re integrated,” says Andrew Earnhardt of Abacus Builders. Down the hall to the primary and secondary bedroom, another skylight tips light into the sleeping wing. And in the primary suite, a window bay provides an intimate view of the garden. 

All this seems relatively uncomplicated, but of course the construction was not. Much effort went into making the cobbled-together cottage plumb and level. “It would have been easier to tear down and rebuild, but we had to leave a certain amount of existing structure in place,” Andrew says. “There were a lot of very tricky details because it went from having no real design to having no baseboards or casings,” Andrew says of the modern, trimless look. “It was like building a ship in a bottle.” Groundwater issues required parts of the foundation to rest on helical piers. And new cambered steel beams were attached to parts of the old framing to carry two of the ridges that span the large public space. 

“We adjusted the height and angles of the wood ceilings a bit so we wouldn’t end up with 1-inch slivers of exterior siding,” Andrew says. “And we balanced those geometries to be able to center the light fixtures within the joints of ceiling boards or centered on a board. We ended up recladding the entire ceiling structure in plywood substrate so the hemlock siding would sit perfectly flat.”

Into the Woods

Interior and exterior finishes enhance the relaxed atmosphere expressed by the spatial reorganization. The clients had a limited wish list but were specific in their request for an efficient fireplace and Dineson oak flooring. In the main living area, unstained hemlock on the ceilings and select walls is carried out to the eave soffits. Plastered walls and rift-cut oak cabinetry, including wall niches in the main bedroom, complement the flooring and hemlock. In the main bath, limestone on the tub surround, floor, and backsplash tiles keeps the look simple and modern. The lighting also elevates the cabin aesthetic. “With those beautiful ceilings, you don’t want to add a lot of recessed lighting, and it doesn’t feel rustic and cabinlike,” Heidi says. “We found this line of light fixtures that had wood on them, some long and linear and some small and directional.” 

As artists with an eye for color, the clients chose the cerulean blue hue for the kitchen cabinetry. Richardson Pribuss then selected a matching color from another paint company whose VOC levels met California restrictions. A similar process resulted in the paint color on the exterior redwood siding, which needed to be patched. “The clients came up with a range of paint colors for the exterior that they had used before,” Heidi says. “But the light looks so different here than in New York. We photographed a similar color and said, ‘I think this is the one you want.’” 

Although the project was built during the height of the pandemic, it didn’t seem to suffer. “The clients aren’t very tech-minded, so there were few Zoom meetings, only photos going back and forth,” Heidi says. “They just really trusted us. When they finally saw it, all they said was, ‘We just love it; it’s simple and it works.’”

Cabin in the Woods

Marin County, California

Project Credits

Architect: Heidi Richardson, AIA, and Andrew Pribuss, AIA, Richardson Pribuss Architects, Mill Valley, California

Builder: Abacus Builders, Corte Madera, Mill Valley

Interior designer: Jack Dakin and Danielle Velasco, Richardson Pribuss Architects

Landscape architect: Gretchen Whittier, Arterra Landscape Architects, San Francisco

Structural engineer: Turbin Structural Engineering, Mill Valley

Project size: 1,600 square feet

Site size: 0.18 acre

Construction cost: Withheld

Photography: Thibault Cartier Photography

Key Products

Cladding: Nusky Fireblock

Countertops: Custom from M. Teixeira Soapstone, custom hemlock

Decking: Western red cedar

Engineered lumber: Douglas fir

Entry doors: Sun Valley Bronze hardware, Della Lever

Faucets: Dornbracht

Fireplace: Ortal

Flooring: Dinesen white oak

Foundation: Helical piers

Hardware: Rocky Mountain Hardware

Icemaker: Sub-Zero

Lighting: Unique Lighting, Allied Maker spot, StickBulb pendant

Ovens/Dishwasher: Miele

Paint: Benjamin Moore Hidden Falls 712 (exterior); C2 Scallywag C2-727 (kitchen cabinets)

Refrigerator/Ice Maker: Sub-Zero

Shower enclosure/Tub: Kohler

Sinks: Blanco, custom from Haussmann Natural Stone

Skylights: Royalite 

Toilets: TOTO

Wallboard: Eco Stucco lime plaster

Windows: Jada WIndows