A Family Guesthouse Made for Accessibility, Aging in Place—and That View

By Zahid Sardar
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With both an aging relative and a wheelchair user in mind, architect Neal Schwartz creates a family guesthouse designed to be accessible to all.

In the hills of Los Gatos, California, Elizabeth Twaddell, her husband, Amardeep Misha, and their two teenage daughters had outgrown their home. It lacked a proper family room, but creating a communal area would mean the loss of the guest suite designated for their family matriarch, Surendra Kaur Misha, who often visits for several months at a time.

The family decided to build a guesthouse instead and commissioned Neal Schwartz, founder of the San Francisco–based firm Schwartz and Architecture, to design and oversee the new structure on a beautiful secluded wooded section of the steep five-acre property. For Schwartz, the unique siting demands would have been simple enough to contend with, if not for the challenge of accessibility—a consideration that was top of mind for the family.

Resident Elizabeth Twaddell enjoys the weather with her daughter Uma outside the guesthouse Neal Schwartz designed for her mother-in-law, Surendra, who frequently visits for extended stays. A concrete driveway forks off from the main house to lead to a covered breezeway, sited between the new 775-square-foot structure and a two-car garage. 

Resident Elizabeth Twaddell enjoys the weather with her daughter Uma outside the guesthouse Neal Schwartz designed for her mother-in-law, Surendra, who frequently visits for extended stays. A concrete driveway forks off from the main house to lead to a covered breezeway, sited between the new 775-square-foot structure and a two-car garage. 

Photo: Joe Fletcher


Surendra is 78, and Elizabeth has been a wheelchair user since an accident she had in her twenties. "It had to be customized so that both Elizabeth and Surendra could feel at home," Schwartz says. Based on the size of the main dwelling, local zoning laws stipulated the guesthouse be no larger than 775 square feet, and the family readily determined it had to be a single-level structure. With the densely wooded site, "It was difficult to get a car there from the main house," says Schwartz, "let alone make it accessible for someone elderly or in a wheelchair."

For the breezeway, Schwartz used concrete to achieve the feel of a hardscape courtyard. Uma basks beneath the egg-shaped opening. Schwartz opted for durable, easy-to-maintain materials—metal, concrete, and smooth integral stucco—that fare well in both extreme cold and heat.

For the breezeway, Schwartz used concrete to achieve the feel of a hardscape courtyard. Uma basks beneath the egg-shaped opening. Schwartz opted for durable, easy-to-maintain materials—metal, concrete, and smooth integral stucco—that fare well in both extreme cold and heat.

Photo: Joe Fletcher


Cut into the roof, a strategically angled ovoid oculus lends the space a distinctively futuristic air.  


In the living room and kitchen, soft-but-tough Expanko cork flooring provides comfort and stands up to dings and scuffs. While the kitchen was designed primarily with Surendra and a caregiver’s needs in mind, it also accommodates the five-foot-radius of a wheelchair. 

In the living room and kitchen, soft-but-tough Expanko cork flooring provides comfort and stands up to dings and scuffs. While the kitchen was designed primarily with Surendra and a caregiver’s needs in mind, it also accommodates the five-foot-radius of a wheelchair. 

Photo: Joe Fletcher


A year’s deliberation led the architect to connect the two disparate properties with a central pathway. A smooth new concrete driveway for the guesthouse forks off from the main driveway, leading to a flattened section east of the main house that is dramatically shored up with retaining walls. There, the small stucco-clad, wood-frame guesthouse now stands, separated from a two-car garage by a breezeway. "When you drive up you don’t realize how steep the site really is, but when you enter you see you are high up, and hanging over the edge. The front and back of the structure offer very different experiences," says Schwartz.

Zoning laws determined the maximum square footage of the guesthouse; as a workaround, Schwartz created a detached two-car garage, which did not count toward the dwelling’s overall size. In addition to the breezeway and the overhang, a series of ipe slats unite the two structures, covering the doors and a walkway in between. The living area is furnished with a Raleigh sofa and armchair by Jeffrey Bernett and Nicholas Dodziuk; the direct-vent gas stove is by Jøtul. 

Zoning laws determined the maximum square footage of the guesthouse; as a workaround, Schwartz created a detached two-car garage, which did not count toward the dwelling’s overall size. In addition to the breezeway and the overhang, a series of ipe slats unite the two structures, covering the doors and a walkway in between. The living area is furnished with a Raleigh sofa and armchair by Jeffrey Bernett and Nicholas Dodziuk; the direct-vent gas stove is by Jøtul. 

Photo: Joe Fletcher


From the inside, the conjoined two-bedroom structure is an overlook that appears to float effortlessly above the treetops.


Schwartz configured the space with a live-in caregiver for an elderly person in mind, while also taking into account Elizabeth’s need to access the property. The five-foot turning radius of a wheelchair guided the floor plans and resulted in large, open living spaces unencumbered by walls. The bathroom is outfitted with grips and hand bars, and the under-counter kitchen cabinets, while not ideal for Elizabeth, provide easy-to-reach storage for Surendra, who likes to cook. Minimally furnished with low-maintenance pieces from Design Within Reach and Room & Board, the living area has warm cork floors that provide a bit of cushion and resiliency against everyday use, including scuffs and dings from Elizabeth’s wheelchair.

In the bathroom, narrow porcelain floor tiles, which require more grout, provide extra traction to prevent slips. Schwartz chose Hansgrohe’s PuraVida shower mixer for its easy grip. Inlaid with a leaf pattern, lightweight and impact-resistant Varia Ecoresin sliding panels by 3form access the washer and dryer. 

In the bathroom, narrow porcelain floor tiles, which require more grout, provide extra traction to prevent slips. Schwartz chose Hansgrohe’s PuraVida shower mixer for its easy grip. Inlaid with a leaf pattern, lightweight and impact-resistant Varia Ecoresin sliding panels by 3form access the washer and dryer. 

Photo: Joe Fletcher


The wet zone is sited between the two bedrooms designated for Surendra and her caregiver.  

The wet zone is sited between the two bedrooms designated for Surendra and her caregiver.  

Photo: Joe Fletcher


On approach to the guesthouse, the family keeps an edible garden in concrete planters by the property’s landscape designer, Cielo Sichi of Landfour. 

On approach to the guesthouse, the family keeps an edible garden in concrete planters by the property’s landscape designer, Cielo Sichi of Landfour. 

Photo: Joe Fletcher

Because decks would have been included in the structure’s strict square-footage calculation, there are none that would be labeled as such by zoning code. Instead, Schwartz explains, a partially covered entry breezeway acts as a deck and extends living space to the outdoors—without being counted as extra square footage.

Cut into the roof, a strategically angled ovoid oculus lends the breezeway a distinctively futuristic air. Like the large picture windows and vistas throughout, the overall connection to the outdoors is "meant to facilitate endless visual interest near and far," says Schwartz. "To my mind, to visually explore one’s surroundings fosters a sense of movement, even if physical movement is limited." 

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Illustration by Lohnes + Wright 
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Zahid Sardar

@zahid_sardar

Zahid Sardar is an author specializing in architecture, interiors, and design. He currently writes the Material World column for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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