From the street, there’s not much to differentiate the renovated 1912 Craftsman bungalow of Irene Cheng and her husband, Brett Snyder, from its neighbors. Which is exactly how the town of Piedmont, California—a leafy enclave adjacent to Oakland—likes it. Politically liberal, aesthetically less so, Piedmont has a strict design code and a small, vocal community. "You want to attract the least amount of attention possible," Cheng says.
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The couple met as graduate students in architecture at Columbia University and worked for others (Cheng for Bernard Tschumi, Snyder for Steven Holl) before founding their own firm, in 2006. They then sought academic jobs around the East Coast, ending up in Syracuse, New York, where Cheng pursued a doctoral thesis on mid-19th-century utopian communities. Weary of the peripatetic life, they won the scholastic jackpot when they both scored tenure-track jobs in the Bay Area—Cheng at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, Snyder at UC Davis—and migrated west.
"Brett found the house," says Cheng, who, like her husband, was attracted to the street because it reminded her of Syracuse. And while far from ideal, the dwelling had potential. "A Craftsman has this generic quality, and because it’s wood-framed, it’s not too complicated to take down walls and fix problems," says Cheng. "Of which there were many," Snyder quickly adds.
The one habitable floor was a crazy quilt of bedrooms and bathrooms, with a small kitchen, living room, and dining room, and a glass-enclosed sun porch that overlooked the garden’s bumper crop of weeds. Initially finding the porch the most appealing place in the house, the couple soon learned it was either blazing hot or freezing cold, and getting to the garden required a trip down a staircase through the basement.
With two active children (Kai, now four, and Xia, seven), space was tight. To eke out more room, they had two options: raise the roof or colonize the basement. "The planning department made it very clear that going up was going to be far more challenging from a permitting perspective," says Snyder.
There was also the general aura of gloom that pervaded the main floor, as little light made it past the maze of dark brown and navy blue walls. Once the decision was reached to move the bedrooms downstairs, Cheng and Snyder began a series of updates to open the kitchen by painting the walls white and stripping the floors to create a light contrast with the dark street-facing exterior. "Now you can walk in the front door and look straight through the house," says Snyder, pointing to a stand of redwoods in a distant garden.
As both residents favor a kind of relaxed rigor, there is no cacophony of objects to detract from the feeling of airiness. Rooms are furnished simply, with a mix of vintage finds and pieces crafted by Snyder. The former master bedroom is now Cheng’s office, and, instead of being hemmed into a corner, the kitchen flows into the deck through a NanaWall door system.
A new interior staircase leads down to the living quarters, some 700 square feet containing two bedrooms and a bath. Then it’s just a few steps to the yard, which embodies the California ideal of outdoor living, with a fire pit and a garden that produces everything from strawberries to a prize-winning pumpkin, and plants that are irrigated by a graywater system that connects to the laundry and upstairs bathroom.
The view of the house from the garden is like the "after" shot of a really good makeover: The Craftsman proportions and bone structure are intact, but the back looks like the front facade’s younger, hipper cousin. Unlike the peeling, painted gray shingles it replaced, the red cedar has been left to weather naturally. The new deck and staircase cross the house with a clean geometric swoop, while an awning provides passive cooling. "We like how when you come back here, it’s such a surprise," says Snyder. "And since you never experience the rear facade with the sides, there’s no disconnect."
In their search for functionality, Cheng cites Hannes Meyer’s Co-op Zimmer—the 1926 room mock-up that contained a cot, a chair, a gramophone, and little else—as a kind of muse. "It’s a sparse form of living, but one that includes music—a sign that the ultra-functional can be compatible with art.
"And while I’m not sure I’d describe living in a single-family house in a suburb as ‘utopian,’ there are some principles that informed our decisions." These include expanding the house’s usable space without increasing its footprint and emphasizing communal areas while minimizing bedrooms. Even Piedmont, a compact neighborhood with easy access by foot and bike to urban amenities, enhances livability.
"It’s more the scale of an older streetcar suburb than the contemporary distributed sprawl," Cheng explains. "The lots are small and it’s fairly dense. So at the end of the day, you can’t hide from your neighbors. You have to find a way to live together."