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A house among the trees

Architect tour to feature Menlo Park home

A copper beech tree, which is visible from the floor-to-ceiling doors in the great room, dominates the backyard. Photo by Matthew Millman Photography.

Even before Ron and Ellis Bigelow bid on the 1950s Eichler in west Menlo Park, they consulted with an arborist to see what they could do about the half dozen huge redwoods and beech trees.

"If you can't live with these trees, don't buy the lot," Ron recalled the arborist saying.

The couple decided to buy, then consulted with Butler Armsden Architects to figure out how to design a new house with a similar footprint to the old one-story house while accommodating the tree roots.

The results of their efforts will be viewed on Saturday, Nov. 4, as the sole San Mateo County house included in this year's American Institute of Architects Sustainable Home tour.

Bigelow said the project involved careful negotiations with the city to see how close they could get to the trees without harming them.

Architect Dave Swetz said the plan "was always well choreographed, not a struggle. Planning ... became a master plan of the lot. We used the limits to our advantage."

Today the modern structure consists of three pavilions: a one-story section that includes what Swetz calls "a pretty great room," with its dining area and snazzy, marble-clad kitchen; a two-story section with a powder room, laundry and garage downstairs and two bedrooms and Jack-and-Jill bathroom upstairs; and a two-story section with a library downstairs and master-bedroom suite upstairs connected by a book-lined bridge.

The exterior sets the tone, with its horizontally clad, reclaimed-redwood and stucco walls. The front doors are 12 feet tall, mostly glass, frosted at the bottom for privacy from the street. The concrete pathway continues right through the house to the back, where it leads to the lap pool.

All the walls in the great-room pavilion are 12 feet tall with floor-to-ceiling doors and clerestory windows, all the better to see the heritage trees. "The clerestory windows preserve the wall area but let in light," Swetz said.

The high windows along with the eave overhang act as passive solar heating and cooling, contributing to the home's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum rating from the Green Building Certification Institute.

As a now-retired environmental lawyer, Bigelow said that "this issue of sustainability has been of personal and professional interest to me since my days in college many decades ago."

After moving to California he took a course offered at Rice University on building a "green" house.

"The course made it evident to me that it was possible to build a green house for about the same cost as building a 'normal' house, so long as one knew how to approach it and planned carefully. ... It definitely takes more work, but it also definitely can be done," he wrote, adding that he was "extensively involved in the planning and construction of the house," including choosing the architect, general contractor (Kathleen Liston of Moderna Homes, Menlo Park) and landscape architect (Shades of Green, Sausalito).

Given the 10,010-square-foot lot's limitations, Butler Armsden could have designed a long, narrow box, Swetz said. Instead, by making three distinct living spaces, they created courtyards and a variety of ways to utilize the yard: a small raised vegetable bed to one side, a lap pool right outside the great room, seating near the library.

Colors, especially on accent walls, were taken from the Farrow and Ball palette, including shades of gray, mauve and eggplant. The main color used throughout the house is a neutral gray called Cornforth White, which according to its maker is an "understated gray" that creates "a hushed and calming retreat."

Most of the interior colors were inspired by a painting the Bigelows brought from their former home in Texas.

They also moved their favorite furniture with them, including a large hutch that fits into a niche designed for it near the kitchen.

"We made a very distinct effort to tie in Eichler elements, so it would fit in," Bigelow said, noting the metal roof, redwood siding and stucco walls.

"It captures the spirit, but is built for its time," Swetz added, calling it "vaguely Japanese."

"And a little Frank Lloyd Wright," Bigelow said.

In addition to the self-guided tour, visitors can opt to attend a panel discussion at 11 a.m. with the design and construction team, which includes Lewis Butler and Dave Swetz from Butler Armsden.

What: AIA San Mateo County Home Tour

When: Saturday, Nov. 4, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: One home in Menlo Park

Cost: $30 self-guided tour, $50 tour and panel discussion, plus wine-and-cheese reception

Info: aiasmc.org

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