How did the Nowita house get started?
Julie and I bought the house in 1994 and she has a real penchant for demolition. Her favorite part of construction is demolition. So it was about a 600 square foot bungalow that was just falling apart. You know the three rules of real estate: Location, location location. So we bought the worst house on a great street. So over the course of two years Julie demoed some of the house and we lived in it with big holes in the floor and the walls. But we were in our twenties so it didn't matter.
In 1996 we did the first remodel, essentially preserving the footprint and adding an identical program above. Two daughters later we decided, at the urging of our older daughter, to add another two bedrooms and a garage and to work out a real and direct connection to the landscape.
Tell me about those posts that prop up the new master bedroom and bathroom. At first glance they look almost haphazard in their arrangement.
It was about being as honest as you can be. This is how the this thing is held up. Not be juvenile, but we wanted to build with the honesty of a five-year-old. In the 96 renovation we hid a lot of the structure, all the roofs and planes were floating and you couldn't necessarily tell how everything was organized structurally.
So each piece is structural. Thirty-four 4"x12"s cantilever out of the masonry wall in the garage and they bear the vertical gravity load and the lateral earthquake load. They must be 18 or 20 feet long and though we've arranged them a bit to offer shading inside, they're not decorative.
We must have gone through 50 different designs in Google SketchUp and in the end we did the simplest thing: A box encircled with a palisade of beams.
Same idea inside with the plywood shelving at the staircase?
Yeah, again that was about being as honest as possible. That big storage wall at the staircase downstairs has some concealed cubbies and some open cubbies. It's essentially saying "There's crap in here." Some of it you can see and some of it is hidden away. We've always had lots of stuff picked up from our travels, lots of tchotchkes, so this is like a curio cabinet.
Upstairs in the master bedroom we used plywood again for the wainscoting. It's actually really high, like at about 6' 8" in a room with 13-foot ceilings. So all the windows are above head height which gives you lots of privacy without making you feel closed off.
Who makes the fireplace in the master bedroom?
That's by Fireorb and it's made of turned steel. You can actually pivot it to face either the bedroom or the deck. It's kind of a reference to what you'd find in an A. Quincy Jones house. He was a really smart guy and he's very underrated. So the fireplace is halfway between a Franklin stove and an Eichler fireplace.
Tell me about the great magnolia tree on the lot and how that effected the design.
We didn't know that there was a magnolia tree really when we bought the place. It's silly that you don't think much about what's beyond the property line sometimes, but suddenly we realized that we've got this great tree. The glass openings in the original house were shaded by the tree and its drip line—that's a term from landscape architecture meaning if the tree were wet how far out would water drip from the leaves—is about 50 feet. So the house now basically opens up onto a view of the tree and we get lots of shade from it. The magnolia is almost jurassic, it's really a primordial kind of tree.
And how have you reorganized the landscape?
Julie's mom bought the lot next door in 2002. She's a florist and was really the motivating force behind the garden. A yard is a big deal on the Venice walk streets and they're usually a 5'x10' piece of grass. But because we combined the two yards, and her house is situated so far back on the lot and because ours is forward, we got a lot of space.
Again with the property lines, if you just agree with your neighbor to do something coordinated that is both what you want and what she wants, you can gain a lot of space. You can't build a building across a property line—which is just a delineation of ownership, not a physical thing—but you can certainly do yardwork across one.
Aaron writes the men's style column "The Pocket Square" for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for the New York Times, the Times Magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic and others.