Responding to the need for more varied and multi-family housing in downtown Menlo Park, Heather Young Architects was tapped to design a four-unit residential dwelling with modern sensibilities. By matching the goals of the project with the essential qualities of good architecture -- strong plans, good proportions and close attention to detail -- Young and her team transformed what was previously a single-family home into a higher use multi-family project in this vibrant Silicon Valley community.
Three residential units now sit at the front of the site, while a gated single-family home is tucked behind. Each home features open plan interiors, indoor/outdoor spaces (there are 6 private balconies and terraces in the front building alone), and a material palette that mixes the warmth of traditional wood, stone, and stucco with crisp detailing.
“We worked closely with the developer to design a multi-family project that would give each tenant the feeling of both openness and privacy. The composition of the front facade volumes and terraced spaces hint at the integration of space, form and material and how they will come together to break down the three-story structure to create a distinctive modern design,” says Young. "The building's design reflects not only the mix of existing styles in the neighborhood but the opportunity to explore how massing and material selection can help integrate a bigger, multi-family project into a transitioning community."
The simple volumes of the design and building structure are articulated by the material selections. Natural stone tile walls are both the structure and design expression of the ground floor parking area while the walls of the upper two floors feature horizontal wood planks and operable windows. The warm tones of the wood plank walls are complimented with warm white stucco plaster walls at the elevator, and dark brown/black trims on the doors and windows. Exterior railings and privacy screen walls are a mix of painted metal and wood slat. Pulling these disparate elements into a holistic design was paramount to the success of the project.
One of the most significant challenges was designing to accommodate and celebrate a 100-year old heritage tree that was centrally located on the site. Finding a way to preserve this 60’ tall and 50’ wide Coast Live Oak while creating four new housing units was no small feat. According to Young, “One of the biggest fears expressed by the neighbors was that the heritage tree would be removed. To preserve it, we broke the massing of the four units into two separate buildings. We wanted the front building and single-family home to nestle under the limbs so one of the first things we did was build a 3D model of the tree and its major limbs and branches. By working with the arborist to prune some of the secondary branches, we were able to open up the canopy to bring more light to the yard and tuck the single-family home and the 3rd floor terrace under the primary limbs.”
Privacy considerations also played a big part in the overall design. "The plans were designed to give each unit generous exterior terraces and balconies opening out from the main living area to create large indoor/outdoor spaces. We preserved the privacy of these spaces by using wood slat partitions as both low height and full height screening elements on all sides of the building. This gave the tenants a sense of safety and privacy from their neighbors both on and off site while still allowing for some visual transparency. The main terrace for each unit is located on a different facade, further enhancing the privacy of each unit," adds Young.
As a multi-family building, the front structure also had to meet the parking requirements for a commercial project, including drive aisle widths and accessible parking. Once the setbacks were applied to the already narrow site, coordinating parking, back-up and turning radii, and driveway clearances took the concerted efforts of the structural engineer, arborist, fire department and transportation department to find a mutually acceptable solution. These were resolved by transitioning a two-way curb cut and entry drive into a one-way drive to the rear residence and side entry into the garage. The garage door facing the street is an exit only door. Minimizing the street facing garage door allowed the design to focus on landscape and visitor access to the property, while keeping the single-family scale of a one-car garage door facing the street.
Young remarks, "The breakdown of the mass into smaller forms, the setback of the second and third floors facing the street, and the placement of the garage entry help support the transition of the neighborhood as it moves further from single family houses into the higher multi-family density envisioned by the new R-3 Apartment Zoning adopted by the city."