A Sustainable Home in Silicon Valley

Spatial efficiency meets energy efficiency in this Bay Area home designed by an architect for his parents.
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Located on a half-acre lot in the heart of Silicon Valley, the Low/Rise house can be seen as a counter proposal to the suburban McMansion, or any costly, sprawling, and energy wasting development for that matter. In its modest proportions and a strong sense of environmental awareness, this single-family residence suggests a more flexible and sustainable approach to a suburban home. 

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Through an integral relationship between use, form, and material, the Low/Rise House responds sensitively to site, nature, and neighborhood, creating a new type of suburban living – both urban and rural.

Designed by San Francisco-based Spiegel Aihara Workshop (SAW), the Cotton Street residence integrates elements of the ranch house and adapts them to our increasing need for a greener architecture. The architects drew from a wide array of design strategies in order to make the building more sustainable, striving for maximum flexibility of living configurations along with high energy savings. Designed with a sense of consideration for the site, the residence takes advantage of natural lighting and passive ventilation, while its owners equipped the spaces with energy efficient appliances, radiant floor heating, and a solar system for energy generation.

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The first floor consists of two long and narrow structures that intersect in an open kitchen, providing distinct programmatic areas and settling into the tree-lined landscape, allowing yards to surround and permeate each room.

Although environmental performance was a crucial consideration in the design for the Low/Rise house, the social aspect of the residence played an important role as well. Built for Spiegel's parents, the house was designed through interlocking bars of shared and private spaces that make it comfortable for the everyday needs of the residents, while providing additional space for entertaining purposes. The home is surrounded by lush gardens, designed by Aihara, that frame the living spaces and provide the roof deck of the three-story tower with an exquisite view. The fluid connection between the interior and exterior helps make the residence seem both intimate and airy, depending on the situation. 

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Large sliding glass doors suspend the living room within the landscape for family gatherings or larger events.

Although Spiegel and Aihara have a personal connection to the residence, they also consider it a step towards reimagining suburban housing. As Spiegel notes, "the organizational concept of the house could be deployed as a new suburban housing type for a whole range of budgets." In its restraint and efficiency the Low/Rise house proposes a suburbia that, through a close relationship between form and material, responds sensitively to the site, nature, and neighborhood. 

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Maximizing daylight is only one of the sustainable design strategies used in the Low/Rise residence.


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The relationship between interior and exterior becomes crucial in the articulation of the residence.


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In this sustainable home in Silicon Valley, the primary suite opens to a deck and fern garden with large, sliding glass doors.

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A compact and vertical guest tower is sited at the western corner of the lot amongst tall evergreens, allowing for a more private guest experience, more compact floor plan, and the ability to effectively shut off (socially and energy-wise) the guest spaces zone by zone during typical daily use.

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Atop the 30-foot tower, a roof deck emerges through the trees, providing a unique vantage point of the structure below and the surrounding townscape.

Dora Vanette
Dora Vanette is a part time lecturer at Parsons The New School for Design.


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