By Zahid Sardar – San Francisco architect William Duff designed a reprise of midcentury modernism in this new Menlo Park retreat. But it’s not just ideas that have made a comeback. Because the owners wanted to limit their carbon footprint, some materials in the house are also salvaged.
The owners, Jason and Robyn Wheeler, are a couple in their 30s with three small children. They frequently shuttle between Silicon Valley and England for his employer, an Internet company, but this is home, close to where Robyn was raised and where the couple met when Wheeler came to work for Hewlett-Packard in 1996.

“In 2002, the first house we ever bought was nearby, too,” says Wheeler. “Two years later, we bought this place.”

However, their home and an adjacent guest cottage, totaling 2,500 square feet on a 10th of an acre, were not large enough for the five of them.

Wheeler planned a similar, but larger, 5,000-square-foot home with more indoor-outdoor areas, similar to the ones in Colorado where he grew up. It was also a way for the Wheelers to have a modernist space for our times – visually warm and eco-friendly with solar radiant heating, cross ventilation and recycled materials.

Duff, affectionately called Duffer by his friends and clients, went to school in Colorado and ended up at Cornell University. He has done many sustainable designs, including one for Mixt Greens, a restaurant in San Francisco, and he quickly became the Wheelers’ first choice. “My son built a Lego model of what we wanted, and we showed it to him,” says Wheeler. “A lot of that model ended up in the final place.”

The basic plan shared features with the former house and guest house on the lot, but with a central family room – sporting foldaway corner doors that open to the back garden – to connect the two wings. Thus, although the old house and guesthouse were razed, their foundations were saved. Other materials that were salvaged were recycled into the new building or used as landscape material by designer Topher Delaney.

“We poured new foundations only where we needed them,” says Duffer. “We minimized the amount of new concrete, and Topher even used the old chimney bricks for the paving pattern around a new pool and guest pavilion.” Even the new foundation and concrete floors use fly-ash, a recycled product, says project architect Martine Paquin.

Recycled denim in the walls and low-VOC paints, which are increasingly becoming standard in California, were also used.

The new Schindleresque structures with flat roofs at different heights and wide overhangs, clerestory windows and an interplay of wood and stucco cladding echo work by Frank Lloyd Wright. The modular configuration of the rooms and the proportions of doors and windows are borrowed from Le Corbusier.

“I design what I think is right for the client and the site,” says Duffer. In this case, popular Cor-Ten steel, glossy prefinished Fin-ply and integrally colored stucco were used because they can be maintainence free.

“I also wanted to reduce the scale of the buildings visually. I did that by emphasizing horizontality the way Wright did,” he says.

For a warm look, but also because it is a long-lasting material, all the doors and windows are made of mahogany. Duffer even used mahogany veneers on recycled cores for all the cabinetry, with its grain running horizontally. In the main house, an unbroken hallway from the entrance to the poolhouse in back is another deliberately horizontal gesture.

Although the interior is a series of open spaces on each side of the central spine, varied ceiling heights give the illusion of discrete rooms, and storage cabinets double as short walls to divide dining areas from living spaces, the kitchen and other public rooms. The higher ceilings in the center also suck up warm air and dissipate it through operable clerestory windows.

The flat roofs conveniently keep solar panels out of sight; one set is photovoltaic for electricity, another is for heating water and a third to heat the 14-by-28-foot pool.

Delaney designed the lawn surrounding the pool as an informal, kid-friendly area that is partially planted with swirling mondo grass rather than typical manicured turf that requires too much care. And, as an homage to Colorado, she procured large boulders from Gerlach, Nev.

A vertical sculpture of Cor-Ten and sand-blasted glass with a cascading waterfall near the guest pavilion is Delaney’s nod to the house itself. “She used the Cor-Ten to echo the chimney, a focal point of the house,” says Duffer. “And like so many things inside, the glass is recycled.”

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