The tension between pretty good and absolute perfection is something architects must resolve before undertaking any significant remodel. For budget and stewardship reasons, no one wants to change more of an existing structure than is necessary, and the success of any home renovation depends on how well it achieves that before-and-after balance. While not easy, this is a decision tree that partners Heidi Richardson and Andrew Pribuss frequently confront in Northern California, where buildable land is scarce and expensive and remodels are a large part of their work. To get clarity, they begin by asking whether the house is in the right spot on the land, or at least whether the garage is well placed. “Invariably it’s us, the client, and the builder who says, this makes sense, or it doesn’t,” says Andrew.
That dilemma was never prolonged on this 1960s two-story house. The driveway and garage were in the right location on the quarter-acre lot, which had 180-degree views from Mount Tamalpais on the west to the San Francisco skyline on the south. In fact, the owners understood this: A year or two earlier they had installed a professionally designed landscape with sculptural entry stairs and, in back, an outdoor kitchen surrounded by multi-trunk arbutus trees. These elements became the anchors of the renovation.
Banking up against a hill on the north side, the roughly rectangular home runs east-west along a downslope, its long side facing the view to the south. Originally it consisted of an entry-level garage, bath, laundry, and cramped TV room, with a long crawl space against the slope. Upstairs, a living and dining area led to a kitchen opening to the backyard, while the other side of the house contained three bedrooms and two baths.
With a growing daughter who needed more space to hang out with friends, the clients asked for gracious common spaces, additional getaway rooms, and overnight accommodations for visiting family from the East Coast. Expanding the garage level made way for a mudroom, guest room, bath, and lounge with access to the lawn, an alteration that smoothed out some of the jogs in the footprint. The glassy main level was reframed and enlarged to house the kitchen, dining and living room, two offices, a den, and a gym. The recessed third story is brand new, containing two bedrooms, a bath, and a main bedroom suite whose deck overlooks the backyard. “This is like the Covid house that everybody wants,” Heidi says. “There’s an office, a place for kids, and exercise space.”
Circulation, views, and indoor-outdoor access were the focus of the interventions. On the main floor, one of the most fraught moves was figuring out where the kitchen would go. Adjacent to the living area, the existing galley kitchen faced the intimate backyard and outdoor dining terrace but was hemmed in, cut off from the big view. “There was all this angst: Does the kitchen want the view or to have outdoor space on the rear?” Andrew says. Ultimately, repositioning the stairway solved this puzzle. A bigger kitchen now enjoys the views on the south side—formerly the domain of two bedrooms. Directly behind it is a steel-and-cedar staircase that connects three floors and provides cross-views through the house. “The original stair ran north-south with a switchback and cut off one side of the house from the other,” Heidi says. “By putting it in the middle and running it in an east-west direction, we made it a sculptural object that you could circulate around.” At the main floor landing, a walnut panel screens the staircase from the living room, which maintained its original southwest orientation. Upstairs, the stair hall opens to a deck spanning the south façade.
“Fixing the stairs in a remodel is tricky business,” Andrew says. “We barely got the number of risers to work, and head clearance above.” However, it’s not just its new position but the detailing that elevates the whole house. The railings have no posts, only steel pickets, and keeping them straight and secure presented a challenge for builder Nick Calder, finish carpenter Jose “Yogi” Acevedo, and Nick’s son Mitch Calder, a welder. “It’s not the kind of thing you could draw ahead of time,” Nick says. “The bottom of the railing is a steel plate screwed to the floor, and the pickets are fully welded to it with tiny radius welds. It was a combination of all those pickets being welded, and the buttress effect you get when you turn the corner, that made it stiff.”
In addition to the staircase railing, locally sourced white oak floors reference the wood exterior. They were stained dark to anchor the airy walls of floor-to-ceiling glass. “As an organizing principle, it was important that we fold the interior in,” Heidi says. “And the fact that you can see through the house was important.” Outside, vertical and horizontal cedar siding ties the house to the land. The architects settled on the light gray-brown stain after “probably 30 samples,” Andrew says. “We all lost years of our life on that.” “The client had seen a house color they really liked, but the problem, when you call to get it, is that the house had been up three to four years and the color changes,” Heidi says. “Western red cedar is tricky because it can go so orange.”
Adding a third story to an existing house is also tricky in a neighborhood with coveted view corridors. That, and the house’s siting, drove its location. Because the house is approached from below the garage on the west side, a full third story would have looked ungainly. Stopping it short of the living and dining volume not only finessed the exterior scale, it also allowed the living/dining room ceiling to be higher than in the rest of the house—the better to enjoy the view. Deep overhangs work with built-in cross-ventilation to mitigate heat gain on the south and west exposures.
Another concession to all the glass, the consummate touch was planting a thicket of trees to suppress light pollution on the hill. “We were guilty of that on this one,” Andrew says. “The landscape architects had to do a tree study showing how it would look in five and 10 years.”
For all its aesthetic success, this is a classic case of architecture shaped by arduous constraints. “For a big site, you’d think there was plenty of space, but by the time you layer on the pieces, all of them had to be where they are because of issues such as views and existing trees,” Heidi says. Nevertheless, the improvements bring a last-century house up to ambitious standards. “There are different extents of renovation,” Andrew says. “We consider it a new house.” New or renewed, the handsome house fits beautifully into its hillside site, despite the earlier imperfections.
Plans and Drawings
Residence with a View
Corte Madera, California
Architect: Heidi Richardson and Andrew Pribuss, Richardson Pribuss Architects, Mill Valley, California
Builder: Calder Construction, Nevada City, California
Alden Miller Interiors,
Landscape architect: Shades of Green, Sausalito, California, and IDS Landscape Design, Mill Valley
Structural engineer: Turbin Structural, Mill Valley
Project size: 4,500 square feet
Site size: .25 acre
Construction cost: Withheld
Photography: Thibault Cartier
Cabinetry hardware: Omnia, Baldwin, Waterworks, Pinnacle, Dune
Cladding: Western Red Cedar, AZEK
Entry doors: Fleetwood
Exterior wall: Corten steel
Faucets: KWC, Dornbracht, Waterworks, Franke, Hansgrohe
Paint: Benjamin Moore
Roofing: Tar and gravel
Sinks: B91, Kohler
Tub: Aquatica Spoon 2, Kohler
Warming drawer: Wolf
Wood stain: Cabot