A Modernist Dream Home Makes the Most of a Rare Double Lot in Palo Alto
Each time Mark and Laura Pine build a house together—this is their fourth from the ground up—they edge a bit closer to their Platonic ideal of home.
The Pines weren’t actively looking to move, back in 2013. But when a rare double lot became available a few blocks from their home in Old Palo Alto, one of the most sought-after real estate markets in the Bay Area, they were thrilled at the idea of perhaps creating a more perfect home.
"We were living in an Italianate-style house with a contemporary interior and beating back the desire to tackle a new project," says Mark, an engineer-turned-investor and veteran of such companies as Dropbox and Facebook. "We had a list of sacred cows, as well as things that bothered us about our last house," adds Laura, a human resources consultant and former HR executive at DreamWorks Animation.
To help guide the process, the couple wrote a 15-page brief on how they live—everything from how they wake up and how often they work out (four to six times a week) to where they drop their keys, how they entertain, and how much of the house they wanted to use on a daily basis (more than 80 percent). Another consideration was the fact that they plan to always have a large dog romping around. Their current companion, Oreo, is an affectionate German Shepherd with eyes that can melt chocolate.
Thus armed, their search for an architect started around the corner, with a house they had long admired for its material richness melded to a modernist profile. When they met with its creators, Takashi Yanai and Steven Ehrlich of Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects, the rapport was instant, and sketches started flying for the placement of the new building—or rather, buildings.
"That we had to design it as two structures on the double lot is part of Palo Alto’s reaction to tech," says Yanai, explaining locals’ harsh response to the sudden invasion of Brobdingnagian manses owned by Silicon Valley types, a reaction they wanted to avoid. So the architects placed the 5,000-square-foot main house on one of the lots, and a smaller guesthouse with a gym on the other, for a lighter footprint.
"Building is a fantastic blend of intellectual challenges and thousands of decisions, from the technical details, regulations, and site constraints to the spiritual journey of the design." Mark Pine, resident
Although the Pines’ house was initially conceived as an ultra-compact, two-story structure, "it felt squished over and detached from these wonderful mature oak trees," says Ehrlich. "So we decided to fragment it, and have it interact more with the land."
Most of the rooms, including the master suite and guest bedroom, are spread out on the main level, with Mark’s office sitting lightly atop, like a glass treehouse amid the leafy canopy, and a wine room and laundry room below. Connecting all three levels is a sculptural stair tower that’s defined by a 32-by-10-foot continuous pane of glass by German manufacturer Sedak. Says Mark, not without pride, "Every Apple store uses its glass."
The Apple allusion isn’t mere coincidence; the tech giant was one of the couple’s muses, with its retail temples inspiring their stone floors. But the architects also had the "cozy" mandate to consider, not necessarily the first word that springs to mind during a wait at the Genius Bar.
"We consider ourselves ‘earthy minimalists,’" says Yanai. "And while we embraced Mark’s desire for a clean look, we like to layer a crafted materiality into our designs, so a home doesn’t feel machined or cold." This is expressed by the brick exterior of the first story, with the brick continuing inside the house, and the distressed stainless steel panels that partially wrap the upstairs office.
The handmade horizontal bricks, set to accentuate their irregularity, are from Petersen Tegl in Denmark, whose factory predates the first Apple outpost by a couple of centuries. "They lend the house warmth and humanity," says Ehrlich, pointing out variations in the color and texture. "You can see the thumbprints of the maker—they’re like a piece of Raku pottery."
The steel panels on the office were distressed and patinated by California metalworker Chris French for what he describes as a "perfect, yet imperfect" look. The result is a feeling of pedigree and permanence, as if the house has sat on the land for decades. That feeling is reiterated inside by the teak ceilings and siding, oak cabinetry, bronze windows, and even a leather bathroom door.
The landscape flows in and around the two buildings, with private gardens and an intimate sunken courtyard lapping at the windows. The abundance of glass invites long views—when seated at the dining table, one can see clear through the house, across the lawn, through the guesthouse, and out to the cypresses beyond.
And now the oaks are fully part of the composition, with the floor of the master bedroom cantilevered out over the roots of one tree.
So, having attained almost everything on their list, will the Pines really make this their last home, as they proclaimed at the outset? "Funny you should ask," says Laura. "We figure in about twenty-plus years we will have a smaller house, and it’s likely we will build it.
"We don’t have children, but we’ve heard many friends say they had more than one child because they forgot how painful the process was. We think of building the same way: Rather than the costs or how many decisions had to be made, we remember the excitement."