A Family Guesthouse Made for Accessibility, Aging in Place—and That View
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.
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."
Cut into the roof, a strategically angled ovoid oculus lends the space a distinctively futuristic air.
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.
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.
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."
Zahid Sardar is an author specializing in architecture, interiors, and design. He currently writes the Material World column for the San Francisco Chronicle.