This Bay Area Renovation Carves Away Space to Reveal a Luminous Family Home

When Mark and Tamara Murray purchased a home for their family in Atherton, California, south of San Francisco, they were prepared to take on a project. “We bought the house knowing we wanted to renovate it,” recalls Tamara. The 1948 home represented a hodgepodge of architectural influences, with a mixture of Tudor and Mediterranean elements, and a ranch-style floor plan which wrapped around a central courtyard.

Although the original layout largely made sense, the low ceilings and choppy spatial divisions inhibited cohesion and flow, according to homeowner Tamara Murray. “The biggest areas of the home that were not working were the segmented family, kitchen, and dining rooms,” she says. “We really wanted to be able to move seamlessly between the rooms.”

Surrounded by mature trees, the original windows and doors were expanded to maximize the potential of the wooded lot. “We just knew we could make those doors and windows bigger, and bring the beautiful outside in,” recalls Tamara.

When the time came to renovate, the couple didn’t hesitate to turn to Dan Spiegel and Meg Aihara of San Francisco-based architecture firm SAW to reimagine the home. Longtime friends, Tamara and Spiegel were college classmates, and had even collaborated on a previous project. The unusual challenge of the Atherton renovation was that there was already enough space—it was just poorly utilized. The home seemed to be swallowed underneath a massive roof—all inaccessible attic space—making the structure feel top-heavy. “This made the ceiling heights low and a lot of the spaces dark,” recalls Spiegel. “We looked for opportunities to cut away at the unused space—adding lightwells and skylights, stitching between rooms to create continuity, and expanding windows to integrate the landscape.”

Once an inaccessible attic (and essentially “dead space”), soaring ceilings and striking angular lines are now a focal point, geometrically integrated through vertical protrusions and light-funneling skylights.

The entry skylight was designed to have secondary function as a window for the primary closet—blurring the lines between public and private space.

Reorganizing the home’s geometry proved to be a complex undertaking—one that required careful study from day one. “The clients allowed us to do some exploratory demolition before the design work even started, stripping the house to the studs and allowing us to respond to the unusual geometric conditions from the start,” shares Spiegel. This investigation prompted the SAW team to introduce diagonal lines and voids as a counterpoint to the inherently orthogonal starting geometry of the home, creating a new sense of connection, height, and volume, while funneling light into the deepest spaces of the house.

“Dan and SAW came up with a brilliant way of opening up the kitchen, family, and dining rooms by creating a diagonal kitchen and island,” shares Tamara. “It took me several looks at the design to be convinced of going with something that seemed so unconventional, but I’m thrilled,” she says of the unorthodox design solution.

Spiegel and the SAW team leaned on a comprehensive wood palette from Madera to strengthen the architectural vision–wrapping floors, walls and ceilings with European oak to draw attention to the geometry of the voids. “It’s a material that has natural resonance between interior and exterior spaces,” shares Spiegel. “It holds sharp geometric forms, but produces visual and tactile softness.”

“Subtracting” space through the angular voids allowed the interior components—nearly unchanged from a programmatic perspective—to become not only more visually dynamic, but also more open and unified. Materiality proved to be a critical piece of the puzzle, with the SAW team turning to Madera for a full-solution wood design package utilizing European oak that would highlight the bold architectural approach. Warm and textural wood tones would draw the eye to the soaring ceiling heights and geometric voids, accentuating the newly unlocked volume of the interior. “We wanted to use the same finish in a number of different ways,” says Spiegel. “It was essential to have all of these elements cut from the same stock and finished in the same way.”

Homeowners Mark and Tamara revel in the newfound connectivity that the remodel has enabled. “We can sit at the breakfast nook at one end of the house, sipping coffee, and look all the way down to the other end of the house, where the kids’ bedrooms are,” says Tamara.

The openness and connection throughout the home, once a central challenge, is now a favorite element for the clients. A generously-proportioned hallway opens visual and functional lines on the main living level, flanked by expanded windows and sliding doors.

While the wood tones on both floor and ceiling soften the space, the material is durable enough to support the family’s active lifestyle—proving that beauty and function can go hand in hand. “The natural light is reflected off the warm wood on the floor and the ceiling,” says Tamara. “It truly is gorgeous–even when our kids use it as a race track.”

Learn more about seamless wood design at maderasurfaces.com.