A 1950s Livermore home brings the outside in, with a major remodel.
All Photos by Rien Van Rijthoven, architecturephotography.org
Rarely does a drab 1950s ranch house get a second chance. Bulldozers are summoned, and often a colossal Mediterranean-style house rises from the dust. But this Livermore Valley ranch house has defied the odds. An ordinary clay-colored property, it wore heavy eaves low over its small aluminum windows, begrudging views of the surrounding oak-strewn hills. Tired and dark, it looked like a house that wanted to keep the outside out.
But there was a lot about this aging home that its longtime owners liked. The floor plan, for one. And the way it wrapped around a courtyard and majestic oak. “They had outgrown it psychologically more than anything,” says Hutch Mouradian, project architect at San Francisco’s boutique firm MacCracken Architects. “But the clients loved the basic bones of their house. So, we recycled as much of the existing building as possible.”
In 2010, the house was reborn as an architectural dream. Elegant, modern, and strangely unassuming, the new 4,100-square-foot cedar-clad home could belong only in California. Its clean lines and modest statement are reminiscent of Sea Ranch. “My favorite part is that it’s very quiet in the architectural sense,” says Mouradian. “It doesn’t jump out at you or argue with its surroundings. And yet it’s very distinct.”
Today, it’s almost impossible to spot the old ranch house within. But while the aesthetic change is drastic, the surgery was relatively simple. The original oversized roof was replaced and the existing walls increased in height to allow for tall windows and doors that reveal more of the idyllic views. Despite its 5.7-acre lot, the four-bedroom home has been expanded by only 340 square feet, keeping all the rooms in their original places. “The homeowners were surprised that we were able to keep as much of their house as we did and still solve the problems inherent in the original building,” says Daniel Robinson, principal at MacCracken Architects. “They were happy. Everything was familiar but new.”
At every turn, the new design invites the outside in. Open walkways and strategically placed trellises allow for more light while cleverly deflecting Livermore’s sweltering summer sun. Cedar used in the exterior siding as well as for some ceilings, and limestone pavers, which replaced dull concrete outside, continue as flooring throughout. Reflective skylights minimize solar heat while bathing the entryway in natural, milky light. Surprisingly, there isn’t any air-conditioning in this 21st century home, as the original foundation wouldn’t allow for ducts. But as the architects point out, AC would be yet another barrier between the in- and outdoor worlds.
Special thought went into the aesthetic of the home’s entrance. A 700-square-foot garage replaced the original carport, but with access hidden around the back, guests are not greeted with the typically dominating garage door. “There is a little entry courtyard with a reflecting pool. Standing there, you can see right through the house and into the central courtyard,” says Mouradian. “The house is almost like a chessboard of volume and void so that the outside space and the home fuse into one.”
Once dominated by asphalt and ivy, the yard is now home to a lavender-lined, black-bottomed pool (its one curved edge follows a line of live oaks) and the subtle colors and textures of numerous drought-tolerant plants. There are no square hedges here. No rose gardens. “The first thing that comes to mind when you go to the site is that the sky, mountains, air, and sun are your context,” says Mouradian. “You want to do as little damage to nature as possible. It seemed silly to introduce formal gardens or plant some bright nonnative species.”
Even the warm tone of the cedar seems not to intrude. “Cedar is an indigenous material to Northern California,” says Robinson. “The original building slab and grounds looked like they had been dropped onto the site with no real integration with or respect for where it was. The cedar fits color-wise with the oak trees and dry grass.”
Maybe such an impressive metamorphosis will give hope to other lowly ranch houses in danger of being torn down. “If there’s a house you’re intending to buy and flatten, just take one step back, and see if you can do something better than that,” says Robinson. “I hope we’ve shown that you can still make something beautiful, unique, and contextually correct without flattening something first.”
Mouradian agrees. “Sometimes, an existing house suggests solutions that are much more interesting,” he says. “And the East Bay has such beautiful landscapes. We can do better than those Mediterranean-style mansions. And we should.”
Scroll down for a "before" photo, which did not appear in print.