written by:
photos by:
January 21, 2009
Originally published in California Dreams
From the deck of this waterfront house, the scenery is abuzz with Northern California wildlife–but there's not a utility bill in sight.
At the rear of the house, bleacher-style steps mitigate the steep grade down to the water; the boathouse tucks in on the right.
Photo by 
1 / 3
Arriving guests can see straight through the house to the lagoon beyond.
Photo by 
2 / 3
Although most radiant-heating systems are gas-powered, these ground-cement floors take the chill off with an electric warming system. Locally harvested cedar ceilings warm up the room and reach out to the matching siding, which was finished with a nontoxic bleaching oil to first speed, then arrest, the natural fading process.
Photo by 
3 / 3
smith house exterior rear side
At the rear of the house, bleacher-style steps mitigate the steep grade down to the water; the boathouse tucks in on the right.
Project 
Stinson Tam Waterfront
Architect 

When architect Cass Calder Smith first met with his client to discuss replacing her cramped beach house, she took him for a canoe ride along the adjacent lagoon to check out the neighborhood. As they paddled past the eclectic cottages (studded with a few higher-profile hangouts by Joe Esherick, Stanley Saitowitz, and William Wurster), she shared some of her requirements: “To be able to see the top of Mount Tamalpais from my living room, to have lots of usable outdoor space, and to push it to be as environmentally responsible as possible.”

The original house—nestled in a gated community in Stinson Beach, 45 minutes north of San Francisco—was a view-eviscerating, tile-roofed, arch-windowed affair the owner referred to as the “Taco Bell house.” She had purchased it seven years earlier due to its location across the street from her husband’s vacation home. When the time came to design the replacement, many of the 25 extended family members who drift between the two houses—her children, her husband, his children, and a passel of grandchildren—had a say. “One of her sons worked for the Nature Conservancy and was very focused on finding green solutions,” Smith recalls. He adds wryly, “The other is a project manager for an affordable-housing development organization, so yes, there was an unusual amount of give and take.”

One of the first decisions Smith and project architect Dera-Jill Lamontagne made was to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Photovoltaic panels generate all of the electricity—powering the HVAC and radiant-heating systems—and provide backup on cloudy days for the solar hot-water system, which is powered by two thermal panels.
 
Though not fully energy independent, the house actually feeds the grid, giving surplus power back to the community. “We’re all used to thinking that electric houses are expensive to heat,” says Smith, “but when you have a little power plant sitting on the roof, and you’re using the house four days a week, it’s ideal.” Apart from a 50-gallon propane tank that fuels the cooking range, the home’s energy consumption works out to net zero. Though the initial investment was higher—the homeowner estimates $30,000—a state refund check for $9,000 arrived soon after construction was complete.

The house’s layout is designed to help regulate comfort levels naturally while forging a connection to the outdoors. Because FEMA regulations require new construction to be at least three feet above grade, Smith approached the house as if building a dock. Two large ipe decks, big enough to ride a tricycle on, flow from the great room in front and to the back, where bleacher-style steps descend to the lagoon. When slid open, the double-glazed glass doors make the room essentially disappear, inviting cooling cross drafts. All of the skylights open, and a large overhang on the south side shields the house from the sun.

On cooler days, the Boffi ceiling fan reverses direction to circulate warm air, and the hanging fireplace orb rotates out from the living room to take the chill off the deck. Low-maintenance materials allude to the outdoors, including the cerulean blue of the sealed MDF cabinets, whose strips of mirror pull in the view even when one’s back is turned; the sand-colored tiles; and the honed concrete floor, whose pebbled appearance echoes the sand of the nearby beach.

Because the primary goal was to provide a large social place, the sleeping zone—a hallway off the great room—is relatively spartan. There’s a small bedroom at either end, two baths, and an even smaller children’s room (90 square feet) in the middle equipped with bunk beds. Pocket doors in the hall can be left open, or closed for en suite bathrooms. “It’s like a precise Japanese box. Everything fits in just so,” says the owner, describing the challenge of working within the 1,900-square-foot limit imposed by the neighborhood association.

Allowing that she ended up with everything on her list and more, she adds, “You can sit in any part of the house and feel this exquisite harmony. And it’s nice to know that in the future, my children and their children will be treading gently on nature—and won’t have to pay any utility bills!”

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

Modern prefab summer home in Madeline Island, Wisconsin
Prefab construction simplified the building process of this northern Wisconsin summer home, where all materials required ferrying across Lake Superior.
May 30, 2016
This unrealized plan reimagined the city’s downtown and included a large green area next to the capitol building and paths to bring people to the Delaware River
In her new book, Wild by Design, Margie Ruddick shows us how to get closer to nature.
May 30, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent joa herrenknecht berlin cstudio joa herrenknecht berlin loftsw livingr02 studiojoaherrenknecht 2015
Size doesn't intimidate this ambitious designer.
May 30, 2016
modern fjallbacka sweden pine boxes vacation facade
Architect Gert Wingårdh creates a passionately outfitted vacation home for two midcentury furniture dealers on the western coast of Sweden.
May 29, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent driaan claassen cape town south africa ccourtesy of driaan claasen dualpage82
Driaan Claassen combines a variety of materials and a love of history to create distinct objects.
May 29, 2016
energy star dirk wynants extremis poperinge beligium sustainable farmhouse facade
The owner of an outdoor furniture company updates a 19th-century farmhouse.
May 29, 2016
Modern small sustainable weekend home with flat roof
Two linked 1,000-square-foot pavilions are greater than a sum of their parts.
May 28, 2016
inside out los angeles home barbara bestor hollywood outdoor facade charcoal paint pool
Architect Barbara Bestor transforms a Hollywood Hills home by opening up its interior to the site’s dramatic backyard topography.
May 28, 2016
right of laneway vancouver garden sliding glass western window systems door outdoor
A Vancouver garden blossoms alongside fresh development.
May 28, 2016
20160229 dgd highhouse 1777 1024x683
A toddler, a pup, and their parents fit onto a 16.5-foot-wide plot in an inner suburb of Melbourne.
May 27, 2016
rec
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
May 27, 2016
capitol gains seattle multifamily living dining room wassily chair chaise le corbusier cb2
Two Seattle architects design and build a dynamic multifamily structure on a formerly vacant lot.
May 27, 2016
modern beach house thatch roof living dining bar cart
By eliminating walls and incorporating a series of interior gardens, architect José Roberto Paredes creates an eclectic and inspired El Salvador beach house.
May 27, 2016
7
A two-story Eichler in San Francisco gets a freshening up.
May 27, 2016
Bathyard renovation in Madrid, Spain
In Madrid, Spain, Husos Architects renovate a turn-of-the-20th-century apartment for a client with dual passions: her houseplants and a nice, long bath.
May 26, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
May 26, 2016
starting over sturgeon bay facade tongue and groove new growth cypress  0
After a devastating fire, architect David Salmela designs a house to replace a beloved lakeside retreat in Wisconsin.
May 26, 2016
Modern home with brick base and cedar rain screen on top level
An architect reimagines an outdated brick garage by designing a graceful new family home atop its foundation.
May 26, 2016
sardenya lr 7
A renovation brings light and order to a Spanish flat, maintaining its standout ceilings.
May 25, 2016
pow 5 25 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
May 25, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent thom fougere winnipeg canada cthom fougere studio thom fougere saddle chair 2
Designer Thom Fougere plays with scale and typology to create playful furniture.
May 25, 2016
prs my16 0067 v001 1
In the worlds of architecture and design, we’re always looking for the best ways of supporting sustainable building practices. This awareness doesn’t have to stop at our driveways but rather, it can extend to the cars we choose to take us to the places we go each day. With Toyota’s 2016 Prius, the daily task of getting from point A to point B can now be experienced with a new level of efficiency, safety, and style.
May 25, 2016
mountfordarchitects western australia
On a narrow site in Western Australia, Mountford Architects makes the most of a tight spot—with an eye to the future.
May 25, 2016
San Francisco living room with Wassily chairs
Materials and furniture transformed the layout of this San Francisco house, without the need for dramatic structural intervention.
May 24, 2016
shiver me timbers tallow wood kitchen
A pair of married architects put their exacting taste to work on their own family escape in the Australian bush.
May 24, 2016
in the balance small space massachusetts cantilevered cabin glass facade
When nature laid down a boulder of a design challenge in the Massachusetts mountains, an architect’s solution elevated the project to new heights.
May 24, 2016
Wooden Walkways
A home in Ontario, Canada, demonstrates how factory-built housing can be as site sensitive as traditional construction.
May 24, 2016
15 icff 5
From Corian furniture to immersive installations, here are some of our favorite designs we saw at the 2016 shows.
May 24, 2016
gpphoto44
A home and community celebrate natural remove in unison.
May 24, 2016
With our annual issue devoted to the outdoors on newsstands, we did a lap of Instagram for some extra inspiration.
May 23, 2016