Reimagining the California Ranch, Low/Rise House Sets a New Standard For Sustainability

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By Jenny Xie / Published by Dwell
Presented by Nest
The energy-efficient Silicon Valley home that architect Dan Spiegel designs for his parents responds to their lifestyles, the site, and the local climate in a fresh interpretation of suburban housing.

Not every architect launches a practice by building a new home for their parents, but such was the case with Dan Spiegel of San Francisco-based Spiegel Aihara Workshop. The initial idea was to remodel the midcentury Cliff May home where Dan and his sister had grown up, but as the conversation evolved, they realized that it would be much more efficient to start anew.

The resulting residence in Menlo Park, California, is a long, low structure that recasts the traditional ranch house and farm tower as interlocking bars that divide private and public space and encourage energy efficiency. Placed throughout these zones, Nest Learning Thermostats enhance the home’s sustainable mission by intelligently conserving energy. As a result, Low/Rise House is a true reflection of his parents’ lifestyles, but also acts as a broader model for what suburban dwellings might look like—an utter departure from the McMansion.

Reimagining the California Ranch, Low/Rise House Sets a New Standard For Sustainability - Photo 1 of 8 - Two long, narrow structures intersect in an open kitchen marked by a contrasting maple veneer, creating distinct programmatic areas that look out toward a lush, tree-lined landscape. Two operable skylights positioned over the kitchen release warm air while drawing in the cool.

Two long, narrow structures intersect in an open kitchen marked by a contrasting maple veneer, creating distinct programmatic areas that look out toward a lush, tree-lined landscape. Two operable skylights positioned over the kitchen release warm air while drawing in the cool.

Reimagining the California Ranch, Low/Rise House Sets a New Standard For Sustainability - Photo 2 of 8 - Generous sliding glass doors create a dramatic effect in the living room, where a wall of bookshelves provides a backdrop for family gatherings. "There were a few features of the old house that [my parents] really liked," says Dan. "There was a big family room with a huge wall of books, so that was something we carried over for continuity." 

Generous sliding glass doors create a dramatic effect in the living room, where a wall of bookshelves provides a backdrop for family gatherings. "There were a few features of the old house that [my parents] really liked," says Dan. "There was a big family room with a huge wall of books, so that was something we carried over for continuity." 

"Rather than filling up each parcel with puffed up, monolithic volumes, we are trying to combine the super-high density and efficiency of urban environments with the long, low, breezy types of rural environments," explains Dan.

It was, naturally, a nerve-racking process at times. "There were nights I couldn’t sleep," says Dan. But the process of sharing articles and books, discussing models, and learning about his parents’ routines deepened his relationship with them in a kind of role reversal. "It’s a real privilege thinking about how to enhance the lives of people you love."

Reimagining the California Ranch, Low/Rise House Sets a New Standard For Sustainability - Photo 3 of 8 - Unfading green slate from Vermont stretches throughout the home, while floor-to-ceiling glass maximizes daylight.

Unfading green slate from Vermont stretches throughout the home, while floor-to-ceiling glass maximizes daylight.

Reimagining the California Ranch, Low/Rise House Sets a New Standard For Sustainability - Photo 4 of 8 - Having grown up here, Dan was uniquely familiar with the site, which allowed him to take advantage of its best features—including the indoor/outdoor aspect. 

Having grown up here, Dan was uniquely familiar with the site, which allowed him to take advantage of its best features—including the indoor/outdoor aspect. 

The previous layout forced the homeowners, Helen and David—professors of molecular biology and psychiatry at Stanford University, respectively—to pass by a series of empty bedrooms. The new configuration places guest quarters in a 30-foot tower and creates zones that can be essentially turned off to conserve energy. The dwelling shrinks and expands according to its usage, whether it be just the Spiegels, or when "the whole family comes home for Thanksgiving and fills every corner," says Dan. "It was an ecological benefit to have something that could adapt in small increments."

Reimagining the California Ranch, Low/Rise House Sets a New Standard For Sustainability - Photo 5 of 8 - The master bedroom suite, lined in white oak for radiant floor heating, opens into a fern garden in the eastern corner of the site.

The master bedroom suite, lined in white oak for radiant floor heating, opens into a fern garden in the eastern corner of the site.

Low/Rise House opens up to a landscape of native and drought-tolerant grasses, and is thoughtfully composed on the site to take advantage of natural light and ventilation. Insulated glazing, radiant floor heat, and pragmatic materials lessen the home’s environmental impact, and a solar system supplies about 90% of its energy usage.

Enabling their desire to conserve, a number of Nest Learning Thermostats help reduce energy consumption in parts of the residence that aren’t in use by turning themselves off when no one is there, and they program themselves as they adapt to Helen’s and David’s routines. A Nest Protect smoke and carbon monoxide alarm and both indoor and outdoor Nest Cams round out the safe, smart, and sustainable home. While the user-friendly products are conducive to DIY setup, local Nest Pro installers are available to lend their expertise (one recently updated the devices in the Low/Rise House).

Reimagining the California Ranch, Low/Rise House Sets a New Standard For Sustainability - Photo 6 of 8 - "[Nest] is a system that begins to think for itself," says David. "It’s an adaptive, learning [energy] control system that makes my life a lot easier." 

"[Nest] is a system that begins to think for itself," says David. "It’s an adaptive, learning [energy] control system that makes my life a lot easier." 


Reimagining the California Ranch, Low/Rise House Sets a New Standard For Sustainability - Photo 7 of 8 - The guest tower on the lot's western corner rises above the evergreens, creating a private experience for guests while making it possible to close off the space when it's not in use. 

The guest tower on the lot's western corner rises above the evergreens, creating a private experience for guests while making it possible to close off the space when it's not in use. 

Reimagining the California Ranch, Low/Rise House Sets a New Standard For Sustainability - Photo 8 of 8 - The roof deck above the guest tower is a favorite vantage point, affording views of the park-like environment and distant hills.

The roof deck above the guest tower is a favorite vantage point, affording views of the park-like environment and distant hills.

The build was completed in 2013—just in time to host a wedding for Dan and Megumi Aihara, a landscape architect and also a partner in their practice. Their newborn daughter, Aya, is the newest guest of the house. "It’s become a kind of benchmark for a series of important life events, and in many ways, the center for our larger family unit," says Dan.