Real Estate

No cookie-cutter homes here

Self-guided tour showcases new, renovated modern houses

"A 3-story tower and roof deck emerges among vibrant evergreens, providing a unique vantage point of the surrounding townscape."

That's how architect Dan Spiegel of Spiegel Aihara Workshop (SAW), San Francisco, describes part of the home he designed for his parents in the heart of Menlo Park. It's a far cry from the home where he grew up, which was designed by Cliff May and lived in for years by a Sunset editor.

"This was an opportunity to imagine something different," Spiegel said. "It's all about patterns of living. The way people are building houses is so cookie-cutter.

"Our family works in a particular way, so we started with an organizational diagram," he added.

Form quickly followed function in Spiegel's unusual construct, which hinges on three distinct pieces: a one-story "ranch," a three-story "urban farm" tower and a loft, referring to the main social spaces.

But those interested in modern architecture can come and see for themselves as the home of Helen Blau and David Spiegel is opened to the public as part of the Modern Home Tour in conjunction with Silicon Valley Contemporary on April 12. Three other homes in Palo Alto and one in Saratoga will also be featured on the self-guided tour.

Set diagonally on a half-acre lot, the house embraces an indoor/outdoor sensibility: From nearly every room one can look out to the natural landscape, designed by Spiegel's wife, landscaper Megumi Aihara.

One thing kept from the May design is the central location of the kitchen, which is separated from David Spiegel's office and the living room by chimney stacks.

"They hide the fireplaces, but they are also organizational objects," Spiegel said.

Although they did not seek LEED certification, the home is built to be low-maintenance and energy-efficient. The exterior siding is made of red Western cedar. Today it boasts just one coat of stain, but they could let it gray out to silver over time, he said. "It'll last 50 years. We wanted everything to require little maintenance over time."

The flooring in the public spaces is a medium gray Vermont slate, which segues into a medium-plank white oak in the downstairs master-bedroom suite.

Exposed huge steel beams hold up the structure, but also serve as a sort of "crown molding" at the top of the walls. The cleanest of the structural-grade beams were selected for the living-room ceiling; the others are covered by Douglas fir in the master bedroom.

Sliding glass walls, made of Liftslide doors that "insulate like walls," lead to the back yard, where "something is always blooming -- all natives, low water."

At one end of the kitchen is a large pivot door, suspended from a steel beam, which really looks like an extension of the cabinetry. It's made of the same curly maple veneer spun off one tree as the rest of the kitchen cabinets.

Behind the door is "Mom's office," with a wall of glass and Liftslide doors. "You feel like you're suspended between landscapes," Spiegel said.

A pocket door separates the office from the master-bedroom suite, which consists of a bathroom, dressing area with closet and not-huge bedroom that is glassed on three walls overlooking a maple and fern garden.

No room lacks light; in the master bathroom the tub has a large window above it. "It's more of a Japanese style, with a rinsing shower before getting into the tub," he said.

Even the master closet is situated between the landscape, Spiegel pointed out, with a long horizon window next to a bench where one can put on one's shoes.

On the other side of the kitchen is a powder room, with a distinctive sink made from marine-grade plywood. Small rooms for laundry and storing the hot-water heater are off the garage.

The three-story tower, with a convenient second entrance, functions as a guest wing, beginning with a sitting room and kitchenette on the ground floor. Each floor has one bedroom and one bathroom, ending on a rooftop patio with a lookout perch and solid walls.

"With parties, you can have a drink and watch the sunset. There are no more front porches, but people walk along and wave," Spiegel said.

He spoke to the efficiency of the stacked bedrooms in the lesser-used space.

"If building vertically, you have a whole different view available to you," he added.

Today one can see the rows of solar panels only from the tower -- not from the street. Future plans could include a green roof.

The three bedroom, 3.5-bath, 4,500-square-foot home was completed last spring, just in time for Spiegel and Aihara's wedding.

Other homes on the tour include:

* a 1951 Eichler, 3-bedroom, 3-bathroom, 1,800-square-foot, re-purposed space without adding floor area (M110 Architecture, San Francisco);

* a 1950 mid-century modern, 4-bedroom, 3-bathroom, 2,630-square-foot with bookend additions front and back, restored wood ceilings, retrofitted radiant-heating system and other energy-saving features (M110 Architecture, San Francisco);

* a 1950 Green Gables Eichler, 4-bedroom, 3-bathroom, 2,700-square-foot expanded and remodeled in 2012, with new kitchen, entry and master suite (Design for Living, Palo Alto);

* a 2009 Saratoga home in a large woodland site, 4+ bedroom, 4-bathroom, 7,000-square-foot set of smaller structures interconnected by glassed-in walks and vaulted roof (WA Design, Berkeley).

All homes can be visited at one's own pace.

The house tour will end with a "meet and greet" at the Silicon Valley Contemporary fine-arts fair, which will be held at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center in San Jose. The fair, from April 10 to 13, is a benefit for the San Jose Museum of Art.

What: Modern Home Tour in conjunction with Silicon Valley Contemporary

When: Tour 11 a.m. to 4 p.m, Saturday, April 12; post-tour Meet and Greet 4:15-5:30 p.m.

Where: Three homes in Palo Alto, one in Menlo Park, one in Saratoga

Cost: $50 online through 8 p.m., April 11; $60 at a tour home on day of; children 12 and under free

Info: Modern Home Tour

Associate Editor Carol Blitzer can be emailed at

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