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Holley Go Lightly

A decaying Berkeley hills modern is reimagined as a sustainable, award-winning gem.


Photography by Bruce Damonte

For some, it might have been a teardown. Built in the 1960s of redwood siding and concrete block, this Berkeley modern was weathered and rotting, with a black, fetid pond in the courtyard. It was dark. It was drab. It was falling apart.

“It was sort of a Berkeley hills hippie house,” says owner Derek Holley, who grew up in Lafayette and, after living in such faraway places as Berlin, Tuscany, and Manila (where he made a fortune in the call center business), wanted nothing more than a place in the Berkeley hills to call home.

Traveling between an apartment in Siena, Italy, and a rental in Berkeley, Holley found his house clinging to a cliff on precipitous Buena Vista Way, in a neighborhood of more than a few stunning Maybecks. Despite the obvious cosmetic challenges, the house was structurally sound. It had a great open floor plan, and the interior was packed with old-growth redwood shelving and paneling that cried out for reuse. Maybe best of all, the views were drop-dead gorgeous. The house faced west, standing sentinel over San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. Eucalyptus trees on the lot’s perimeter obscured neighboring houses below and to the sides.

Living lightly on the land has always been important to Holley, an avid cyclist, and his wife, Emanuela, an Italian hiking guide he met on an REI Adventures trip in Italy about eight years ago. Both rapacious outdoor types, with few possessions and low carbon footprints, the couple walked the walk of living simply. They wanted to reuse as much of the house as possible, and they wanted a home that reflected sustainability and style. “We wanted something that was modern, even minimalist, but still earthy and warm,” explains Holley. They wanted a house they could feel good about.

To reimagine their Berkeley perch, the Holleys brought on principal architect David Yama of San Francisco’s YamaMar Design, an award-winning firm that specializes in LEED certification. Together, client and architect identified the home’s critical features: Though modest in size, at 2,700 square feet, the open floor plan boasted uninterrupted views of the Bay Area from two levels: the main living level and the bedroom level below. The goal was to leverage these views. The entry courtyard, situated on part of the home’s lower level, was sloped but south facing, offering ideal exposure for an outdoor sunroom.

“We saw that the courtyard space could become a sort of outdoor room to enlarge the house and bring the outdoors inside,” says Yama.

To the delight of its environmentalist owners, in every room, the magnificent outdoors is never far away.

“Between day and night, it’s like two different houses,” says Yama. “During the day, it’s earthy and bright, with sun streaming through the main living area. At night, with city lights twinkling in the distance, the home has a definite elegance.”

Indeed. The American Institute of Architects East Bay recognized the Holley residence for its exceptional residential design, with a 2012 merit award. “They liked the simplicity of the solutions,” explains Yama. “It was modest and green, and somebody had clearly spent time loving the details.”

But the house is not just unique in design. Befitting its Berkeley location, the house has several eco-friendly aspects as well. One obvious example was the reuse of the old-growth redwood. Instead of clearing it out or covering it up, much of the redwood paneling in the living room was simply whitewashed, brightening the space while retaining the wood grain. The redwood wall over the stairwell, however, was preserved unpainted, providing a warm and beautiful contrast.

Additionally, redwood cabinets in the downstairs master bathroom were fashioned from reclaimed redwood shelving, refinished without the use of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Other green features helped keep the already high renovation cost down and added a touch of chic. Precast concrete played a prominent role in the design. Made of locally available materials in abundant supply (gravel, sand, cement), precast concrete is far more ecological and recyclable than imported granite, marble, or other precious finish materials.

Precast concrete fireplace hearths (one on each level), expansive bathroom countertops, and über-eco precast concrete pendant lighting over the stairwell added sustainable cachet to the home. Finally, the removal of the courtyard pond reduced water and energy usage, as did landscaping with drought-tolerant plants.  

The real card trick of the renovation, though, was aligning the entry courtyard, main living area, and view deck on one level. Large Styrofoam blocks below the courtyard and above the home’s lower story located directly beneath added insulation. But more importantly, that allowed a level surface to serve as a functional outdoor space outside of the main living area. The view deck off the opposite end of the living area also met the flooring at a grade (without a step), creating an uninterrupted flow, inside to outside, from the courtyard through the living room to the view deck.   

“This consistent flooring level between the house and the decks and the courtyard makes the house so easy and livable,” says Holley.

According to Yama, perhaps the most important aspect of the renovation, and one of the most expensive, was raising the height of the window wall in the main living space to accommodate the sight line of six-foot-two Holley. This change, not in the original scope of work and requiring significant structural supports, created floor-to-ceiling exposure in the main living area and ensured that Holley could glimpse that stupendous view without stooping. Telescoping doors, custom-made by Corte Madera company NanaWall, were added, spanning the width of the house.

But what about bicycle storage for the athletic owner who races everywhere from California to Sardinia? After the courtyard was fixed, Yama was able to “find space” on the lower level for bicycle storage and a home gym.

By winter, Holley’s in Italy, tutoring middle school kids in Siena (as his wife organizes tours throughout the country). And by summer, he’s racing or escaping the hot Italian summers, quite literally “chillin’”
in Berkeley.

Skyping from Italy, Holley reflects on his life with one foot in each of two worlds. After many years of living overseas, he finds that he really needed this house in the Berkeley hills.

“After all this traveling, it’s the greatest feeling in the world to open the door and know that I’m home.”

And anyone who has seen the before-and-after pictures can’t help but wonder if the house needed Holley just as much.


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