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This House Doesn't Hold Back on Colorful Details

By Dwell @dwell
Palo Alto home with acrylic pool window

Spencer Greene and his daughter, Anya, go for a dip in their Palo Alto, California, home. The three-inch-thick acrylic pool window allows the parents to monitor their children’s swims from the LC4 chaise longue.

Project  Elements House Architect  Studio Urbis

In Palo Alto, California, Spencer Greene, a Texas-raised technology executive, and Santosh Ramdev, a public relations professional from New York, just couldn’t agree on a home they both liked. Greene wanted light wood finishes in a midcentury modern house like his grandmother’s to match his collection of vintage furniture. Ramdev, who grew up in an Indian household full of color, preferred easy-care concrete floors.

The couple found a 50-by-200-foot lot with two teardown structures on it. Then they discovered that the smaller one could not be torn down because disturbing its foundation would harm the old trees beside it. In 2004, Greene and Ramdev began hunting for an architect for the remodel. Just after their wedding, in 2005, they discovered architects Tom Chastain and Renee Chow of Studio Urbis on UC Berkeley’s website. It was an instant match. "As teachers, we didn’t sell. We explained," Chastain says. "Instead of style, we spoke of site and space, and that gave them the confidence to choose us." 

Antje Steinmuller, a former student of Chastain’s who is now a principal at Studio Urbis and a professor of architecture at California College of the Arts, became the project architect. Over the next five years, Greene and Ramdev’s children, Anya and Yash, were born, and several designs ensued for the expanding family. Eventually, they made a choice. "We really helped them to understand what spatial associations they were triggering during our discussions," Steinmuller says. "Spencer was very precise. He’d say, ‘I’ll enter and turn right to reach for a coat hook,’ and then physically demonstrate what he meant."

Thanks to such specific input, the refurbished, 500-square-foot guest cottage remains where it was, and the new 4,000-square-foot, two-story house is a composition of well-lit, open-plan spaces to "journey" through. Inside, bright green, red, and blue walls symbolize earth, fire, water, and air. "Color can be associative, but it also helps to define room spaces," Steinmuller says. In the kitchen, Ramdev’s spices, beans, and grains are stacked in clear glass containers on open storage shelves against a wall of channel glass, like colorful, site-specific art. "The attitude of this home," Chastain says, “is deliberately not luxurious."

Ramdev: We looked at so many gorgeous houses near University Avenue, but Spencer would walk in and say he would have to redo this and redo that. They were all construction projects. I realized then that he was in denial. He really wanted to build from scratch.

Greene: I’ve lived in this area for 20 years, and still it took a long time to find something we liked. We eventually found Tom Chastain’s work and began to be more interested in an intellectual approach to our design. It struck me that he said right away that there will be mistakes, but he promised to make the good stuff outweigh the bad. He had the wisdom to say that he would not be perfect. I’ve been called hyperrational. When we sat down with him, he sensed my interests and explained very simply why modern architecture is different from premodern. In modern architecture, you design the whole site and not just a structure deposited onto the land.

Ramdev: I think Spencer had certain architects he wanted to interview and was really keen on one whose work he had seen in the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine. The house had channel glass, and we went to see it. We liked the style, but the house was intimidating. We are both down-to-earth people, and I did not want marble flown in from India and special things from Italy. I wanted a house that was livable, where our children could grow up happily.

Greene: I had always imagined that architects were artists with great design sensibilities but I did not realize how much of their work is about negotiation. Because there is little residential space close to downtown, Palo Alto lots are deep and narrow. With so many zoning codes, people are building to match the imposed mass and volume restrictions—and that becomes the design. Houses begin to look the same. We wanted something different. In the end, we left a bit of our buildable space unused so we could have a better design within the constraints. The pool, for instance, drove a lot of decisions. Long before this project, I woke up with this image of a porthole looking into a swimming pool. In my mind’s eye, it was a round porthole—just two feet in diameter. But even though I had worked so closely with Tom on the design, when they took the forms off the concrete, I was startled to see this huge gap in the swimming pool wall. Tom said it was the window! I thought a little opening would be all that we could do, practically. He made the idea better, and the water pressure keeps the Plexiglas shield in place.

Ramdev: We had toured so many houses, and every one had wood ceilings and wood everywhere. The natural theme was being overdone, and so I resisted that. We do have some wood paneling downstairs; the architects had to explain to me many, many timeshow it represented the core of the house. It was a battle I lost, but now I agree it works aesthetically. I also wrestled with the architects over the acrylic panels embedded with bamboo rings that serve as translucent sidewalls for the stairs. I thought the panels should be clear, but in the end I picked the translucent panels.

Greene: I call our home the Elements House because the exposed concrete slab suggests earth; the windows reveal the sky; the pool is a water feature, visible inside and out; and the fire is our double-sided fireplace. The lower level has three of the elements. We picked the colors to help make sense of it: Red is near the fireplace and sauna. Blue paint suggests air and water.

Ramdev: Antje Steinmuller was my window to architecture; she worked closely with me. When we were designing the kitchen, she showed me the layout on a piece of paper, and all I said was that I wanted it to be larger, larger. There is enough space for all of us to be working on totally different recipes. I make Indian-style rotis and set the kids up to make their own. Spencer makes pancakes in the morning while I am getting the rest of breakfast or lunch ready.

Greene: Santosh has a vast array of lentils and spices, and that drove certain aspects of the design. Instead of being hidden in a pantry, these foods have become a decorative feature that is extremely useful.

Ramdev: In this kitchen, I always know where everything is because of how Antje designed the open storage shelves. It is not a decorative show kitchen that is not a place to cook. It really functions, and I wanted that.


The Big Screen Upper cabinets with translucent 3form Ecoresin on the front and back panels and open steel shelves allow light into the kitchen from exterior walls of channel glass. This lively and practical screen idea can be used on any window wall or as a room divider to allow privacy while bringing light from one space into another. 

Shadow Play 3form Varia Ecoresin Organics panels were used as sidewalls for the stairwell. The material is a translucent resin that permits light to pass, making the adjacent spaces seem bigger. Silhouetted figures going up and down the stairs animate the room. Effects can be varied and modulated with panels of different textures from different suppliers, such as 3form, Panelite, and Bendheim. Panels can also be mounted in simple aluminum U-channels to be used as partial room dividers or as entire walls.

Primary Colors A flexible exterior wall—composed of two-by-six-foot Fleetwood glass doors that pocket into green side walls—links the interior to the exterior. The use of landscape colors inside is an inexpensive and simple way to visually reference the outdoors. Frank Lloyd Wright employed this tactic, as did Arts and Crafts designers before him. 

Some Like it Hot A double-sided gas fireplace by Regency separates—and also connects—the living room and dining area without diminishing the effect of the larger, loftlike space. regency-fire.com

Here Comes the Sun Daylight ricochets into some of the darkest “landlocked” corners of the house via Solatubes, making artificial light unnecessary during the day. In dense urban areas, where side windows are not possible and large skylights are inconvenient, light can still be channeled through these very small, circular exterior openings. They connect to ingenious reflective inner tubes that can be threaded into walls or ceilings and attached to chandeliers. solatube.com

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