Case Study: Modal Home by S^A | Schwartz and Architecture

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to escape the sound of traffic these days. Even inside suburban houses, you can often hear the thrum of a freeway. In busy urban environments where traffic is up close and erratic, however, there’s less chance that the ear learns to tune it out. That was the case for this house near downtown Menlo Park, where the clients of Neal Schwartz, FAIA, had family and were looking to build. It sits on a corner lot beside a fast road and across from a high school, and the noise was too loud to live with. “A soccer coach had this blaring whistle that, when I first visited the site, was worse than the road noise,” says Neal, “but there is not much land to build on in this area.” They walked around a run-down existing house to the backyard, where the family of four found the ambient sounds tolerable. “They said, if you can design a house that cuts the noise to this level, OK,” Neal says. “Before doing anything, we hired an acoustical engineer to measure the decibel level, using it as a baseline. From there the engineer could tell us what to do to bring down the decibels on the rest of the site.”

It wasn’t as simple as building a barrier wall. The engineer had specified a freestanding 14-foot-tall wall along the front and side roads, which lowered the noise by 15 decibels to achieve their goal of 48 decibels over 80% of the site. However, the town planning department rejected that solution because the wall had to be structurally part of the residence. That meant pushing the house to the front and side of the lot to avoid a useless front yard. While some would not envy the prospect of cozying up to a solid concrete wall, the S^A design team proposed interior moves that bring out its softer side. To compensate for the loss of sound and views, they pulled the house away from the wall to create a narrow courtyard that turns the corner with the wall and covered the courtyard just enough to meet the connection requirements. Leaning into the concept, they treated the covered sections as an opportunity to frame special views and celebrate the nuances of natural light—a theme that recurs throughout the design. 

“It would be easy to come in the house and do this indoor-outdoor thing where you see the garden,” Neal says. “We tried to do more; within the outdoor-indoor spaces are experiences that make you pause at the quality of light or a framed view of the sky or a tree. It’s not either/or—house or garden.”

Abstracting Light

The residence’s U shape preserves several existing trees and encloses a private backyard. From the side road, visitors enter through a metal gate in a fence whose irregularly spaced slats mimic the patterns of the board-formed concrete wall behind it. “The wall is quite strong at the corner, but as you come toward the front door, the wood and landscaping make the house more approachable,” Neal says. The wall formwork was made with boards of several different widths and thicknesses, and the concrete oozing between them was scraped off randomly, leaving a craggy texture.

Inside the front door, where the wall bends down a long hallway, a hidden skylight slot washes its face with light. “You respond to it on the exterior as a hard, bold thing, and on the interior as a much more beautiful thing, softer and watery,” Neal says. “We wanted to keep the entryway abstract and calm.” 

A foyer wall hung with a nest sculpture—a nod to the wife’s fondness for photographing nests—hides the service core—powder room, mudroom, pantry—that faces the side courtyard garden and concrete wall. As enticing as the wall appears in sunlight, it is the porous bookcase to the right that draws you into the open-plan living spaces. There, the kitchen has a view of the courtyard inside the front acoustical wall, which is plastered and has thick, fixed windows to preserve the sound barrier along the main road. 

To edit out extraneous views, all of the house’s visible skylights come to a razor edge—a move inspired by artist James Turrell’s Skyspaces. “It makes you hyper aware of the movement of clouds in the sky,” Neal says. “We tried to make the spaces contemplative. One roof opening is under a big oak tree; you just see the branches of oak in an abstract way.” Other skylights are hidden, including one in the dining area that scatters light along the wall. “If you don’t see the source, the changing light makes it a bit more animated and mysterious,” Neal says. 

In the living room, a clerestory provides a sight line through the rear courtyard’s roof opening and is paired with a glass ribbon along the floor—or “floorstory,” as Neal calls it. These layered outdoor views were inspired by the team’s deep dive into Trans Modal Neuroplasticity—the idea that the brain can turn up the volume on one sense to compensate for the loss of another. In the architects’ playful interpretation, a heightened sense of light and views compensates for the cloistered setting.

“I love the living room because there are about seven ways to see outside,” Neal says. “You’re seeing through multiple spaces, including the glassy connector ramp to the private zone and the outer courtyard.” Across that ramp are two kids’ bedrooms, a shared bath, and the primary suite, which opens to yet another private courtyard designed around an existing tree. The third leg of the U shape contains a guest suite that doubles as a pool house. 

Embracing Color

Inside and out, the material palette melds the couple’s cultural sensibilities: he is Indian and she has Scandinavian roots. The exterior cladding is quiet, a combination of Shou Sugi Ban cedar and lighter cedar accents, while the Cor-Ten steel carport enclosure recalls Indian jali screens. Inside, whitewashed oak cabinets and white oak floors lend a Scandinavian vibe. 

Neal admits that initially, the clients’ quest for color pushed the team beyond their comfort zone: the kitchen island is cobalt blue, the guest bath has orange wall tile, and the pool changing room is covered in blue wallpaper with a tree mural. “They definitely pushed the use of color, more than we might naturally do,” he says, adding that it all works. “The primary bath floor is a red concrete tile balanced with gray crackle wall tile. In that space the floor is vibrant, and the tile is very organic. You turn and look into this super-serene courtyard with soft plasterwork.”

In the backyard, staggered pavers meander between the public spaces and the guest/pool house, echoing the fluidity of the floor plan. “Inside, your eye is always moving and encouraging you to meander,” Neal says. “The landscape does that too.” Despite its solid presence on the street, the Modal Home softens the divide between inside and out. Its airy courtyards, leafy views, and gentle light offer up a meditative response to the demands of urban dwelling.

Modal Home

San Francisco

Architect: Neal Schwartz, FAIA, principal in charge; Wyatt Arnold, Laura Huylebroeck, Christopher Baile, project architects, S^A | Schwartz and Architecture, San Francisco

Builder: Steve Webb, Webb Construction, San Francisco

Interior designer: S^A | Schwartz and Architecture

Landscape architect: Studio Green, San Anselmo, California

Energy Consultant: Loisos + Ubbelohde, Alameda, California

Lighting design: PritchardPeck Lighting, San Francisco

Structural engineer: iAssociates, Alameda, California

Project size: 4,948 square feet

Site size: 0.75 acre

Construction cost: Withheld

Photography: Bruce Damonte

Key Products

Cabinetry hardware: Sterling WoodCraft

Cladding: Delta Millwork Accoya

Cooking vent hood: Best Cirrus

Cooktop: Thermador

Dishwasher: Miele

Entry doors: Fleetwood

Faucets: Dornbracht, Fantini

HVAC: Messana

Ovens: KitchenAid

Passage doors: Golden State Lumber

Sinks: Kohler, Duravit

Sound wall: High fly-ash concrete

Thermal/moisture barrier: ZIP System

Tile: Ann Sacks, Fireclay, Stone Source

Toilets: TOTO

Tub: Badeloft

Washer/dryer: Electrolux

Window wall systems/Windows: Fleetwood