Before & After: A Choppy San Francisco Duplex Becomes a Svelte Multigenerational Home
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Before & After: A Choppy San Francisco Duplex Becomes a Svelte Multigenerational Home

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By Sarah Akkoush
Persevering through a roller-coaster renovation, a San Francisco family makes room for extended relatives in their revamped hillside retreat.

When Jeff and Carla moved from Alameda to San Francisco, they narrowly missed out on a turnkey single-family home in Noe Valley before stumbling upon a major fixer-upper steps from Buena Vista Park. 

"The place we almost got in Noe was a single-family home that had already been redone," recalls Jeff. "We saw it early on in our process, and thought, ‘Yeah, that has everything we want,’ so we called, and they had just sold it in the last 24 hours."

As their search continued, the couple came across a two-unit dwelling with stunning views that could be a home for their family, as well as an income property—and they immediately knew it was the one. "For me, it was when I walked up the stairs and saw the view. I’m a view person," says Jeff. "It all felt right. It had potential."

Before: Media Room

Almost all of the home’s interior had been gutted before the clients parted ways with their original architect. The media room’s sole window was replaced with a larger sliding door that emphasizes the views and provides access to the front deck.

After: Media Room

"We use the media room a ton. That’s our movie and hangout space," says owner Jeff. Expansive sliding doors from Fleetwood connect the space to a previously inaccessible deck, turning the once dingy front room into a luminous, cozy family zone. "The cityscape is so beautiful from this angle," says architect Kelli Franz. "The roofline with Sutro behind it is just as amazing, I think, as the rear view."

At the time, the owners were expecting their first child—the major impetus for their move. Carla, a professor, worked in the city, and Jeff, the VP of a software company, traveled frequently for his job, so San Francisco was the ideal place to start a family. Their bid on the property was successful, and they purchased the duplex just one month before their daughter was born.

What the property had in potential, it lacked in livability and functionality. "It was a strange place," recalls Jeff. Built in 1912, it was haphazardly renovated in the 1940s. "It was a weird sort of mélange of old bits and pieces. Nothing matched. Every floor had different style windows. Each bathroom was different from the others. There was no cohesive design."

Before: Master Bathroom

One of the project’s major goals was to capture additional interior square footage in the undeveloped attic. The new fourth floor, all private space, would house a master bedroom, master bathroom, and two additional kids’ bedrooms.

After: Master Bathroom

The new master bathroom features a large soaking tub clad in Carrera marble tile from Daltile. A new Milgard window highlights southern city views.

A view from from the bedroom to the ensuite bath. Custom walnut millwork brings warmth and cohesion to the master retreat.

Despite the visual hodgepodge of the duplex, the couple was drawn to the alluring light and views, and saw opportunity in a spacious undeveloped attic. Their initial plan was straightforward—build out the attic and add dormers to make the space more usable. "I don’t think initially we were like, ‘Yes, let’s rip off everything inside and out. That was later," Jeff remembers. "Our initial idea was to do a much lighter remodel—to do whatever we needed to do seismically, then just make it work and rent out the bottom unit."

They were living in the lower unit when plans changed. "We lived downstairs while we planned the renovation of the top unit – that’s when we figured out we wanted to do a more complete renovation," says Jeff. It was also at this time that Jeff’s parents, who lived in London, decided they were going to relocate to the Bay Area. Although they’d have their own full-time residence up north, they wanted a part-time place in the city—and moving into the lower unit was a natural fit.

Before: Kitchen

The small and isolated kitchen was sequestered in the corner of the second floor. Its odd location lacked flow and functionality. 

After: Kitchen

"We knew we wanted enough room for a family—and we wanted to emphasize cooking, and have more of a communal space," says homeowner Jeff of their renovation priorities. The centrally located kitchen features walnut cabinetry, Caesarstone countertops in Pure White, a Heath tile backsplash, and Pablo Designs Cielo pendants. Appliances include a SubZero French-door refrigerator, BlueStar range, and Zephyr vent hood.

With the pivot in design plans, the couple brought on an architect to redesign the home inside and out, planning a vertical expansion at the attic level and a gut renovation throughout. Carefully navigating planning department requirements and the neighborhood notification process, they successfully received their building permit and began demolition and foundation work. Then, everything came to a halt.

"We worked with the initial folks on the project for about a year before we thought, ‘This just isn’t going the way we wanted it to,’" says Jeff. "Then we stopped." Not completely happy with the final design or process, they wondered if they would have to start over.

Cautiously facing a daunting course correction, the couple reached out to Kelli Franz and Seth Paré-Mayer of atelier KS, who they stumbled across after seeing their Sunset District Renovation in Dwell. Paré-Mayer and Franz thought carefully before taking on the project. "We don’t usually like to just step in and finish someone else’s work," says Paré-Mayer. With this project, however, "The clients expressed that they wanted to take it in another direction—so it was kind of like starting over. They said, ‘We’re going to do something different. We want your ideas.’"

Before: Entry Stair

The gutted entry stair was originally covered in basic drywall and carpet.

After: Entry Stair 

The reimagined entry stair favors rich and warm walnut hues, leading visitors to the relocated third-floor kitchen.

Before: Lower Stair

A dated, uninspired staircase connected the third- and fourth-floor living levels.

After: Lower Stair

A slatted walnut screen is a centerpiece of the home’s new design. Accentuating the height of the space, the vertical slats come together with metal rods and a sleek handrail, creating a graphic manipulation of positive and negative space. In addition to allowing light to permeate the interior, the screen is visible from most vantage points in the home, providing an anchor of visual interest.

From the onset, the clients were understandably adamant about preserving the exterior envelope—to avoid the added time and hassle of another round of neighborhood notification. "It was a long process by itself—just to get it signed off by the neighbors," says Jeff. "Even though we had ideas to push things out a little farther, that was going to trigger us to go back to everybody again, and we didn’t want to do that."

Everything apart from the building’s shell—the facade, openings, and everything inside—would change. "There was a defined overall envelope, but we had to go back for a huge revision in order to update the facade," says Franz. "But we didn’t change anything that would require more notification or in-depth review," adds Paré-Mayer.

Before: Upper Stair

With four living levels in the home, vertical circulation is necessary and critical to everyday life. A bland interior staircase connected the third floor to the fourth—a previously unused attic space.

After: Upper Stair 

Solid walnut slabs were used for the interior stair treads—a beautiful and durable choice. Sunlight from a skylight above filters through the space, creating delicate patterns of light and shadow as it passes through the screen.

Although the proportions and massing of the building remained the same, the facade was updated to add additional (and larger) openings, deck access, and overhangs for visual depth. Reorganizing the interior layout to make it more functional and family friendly was a central objective during the architectural change of hands.

"The layout was kind of jumbled," recalls Franz. Starting from square one, the design team took inspiration from the site itself as they reimagined the interior space. "Because of how unique it was—it’s a tower; there are views on four sides—we had to decide what side the master bedroom was on, what side the public space was on…we went back and forth."

Before: Exterior

With a peculiar portal window and architecturally nondescript facade, the 1912 structure was primed for an update. 

After: Exterior

"We found creative ways to (within the allowable exceptions to the planning code so we didn't trigger notification) push and pull the facade. The planter at the media room deck cantilevers over the sidewalk a little bit, so that was a way to get some visual relief," says Paré-Mayer. "We had to do some moves like that in order to try to keep the facade from looking like it did originally, and to bring some interest, movement, and form to it."

The unique lot, and numerous opportunities for views, inundated Franz and Paré-Mayer with design options. "In San Francisco, a lot of things are more intuitive usually—for instance, what side things should be on," says Franz. "This was more of a discussion." "All good choices," adds Paré-Mayer. In the end, they decided to give the exterior porch to the master bedroom on the upper level, "instead of giving it to the kids and worrying about them," says Franz. On the lower level, the kitchen was relocated and the public space was oriented toward the northern views, connected functionally to the backyard.

A standout design feature on the interior is the slatted wood screen, a walnut and metal custom fabrication. "The idea was: one, there’s a skylight on top, so to bring light in, but also to be able to see [the screen] from most angles, even from Jeff’s office, instead of looking at a wall," explains Paré-Mayer.

After: Stair Screen Detail

Careful detailing of the slatted screen showcases the intricate way its walnut and metal components are artfully woven together.

Despite being on the lower level, the "in-law" unit is flooded with light, and fully above grade. Coupled with the site being an atypical interior lot—it touches eight other lots—views are uninhibited, and the outlook is far from claustrophobic. "If it wasn’t for the hill and the topography, it would feel overwhelming I think," reflects Franz. A massive deck on the lower unit connects to the backyard—a public outdoor space that can be shared by the whole family.

Through successes and setbacks, weathering the ups and downs of a complicated renovation process rewarded Jeff and Carla with a home that can be enjoyed by children, grandparents, friends, and family for years to come.

More Bay Area Before & After stories:

This San Francisco Dwelling Feels Like a Japanese Ski Cabin

A Car Shop in San Francisco Is Reborn as an Artist’s Loft, Gallery, and Studio

A Stuffy Bay Area Midcentury Opens Up to Light and Hillside Views

Project Credits:

Architect : atelier KS

Builder: Mascheroni Construction

Structural Engineer: SEMCO

Cabinetry Design: J Style at Home

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