Urban ecological technology
Dreaming of a large, clutter-free home and adjacent office, Jason Shelton, a tech entrepreneur, and Amy Shimer, who is in banking, purchased an 8,500-square-foot warehouse in San Francisco’s now-trendy, formerly industrially unchic, South of Market (SoMA) district. The space, they thought, would give them enough room to live comfortably without clutter, despite the presence of a young daughter and an even younger infant. Their challenge was to turn the former photography studio into a modern and elegant home that celebrated the city. “We loved the big, industrial open space,” says Shelton, “and wanted to preserve that integrity.”
To accomplish their vision, the couple approached noted San Francisco architect Anne Fougeron. Since establishing her office in 1986, Fougeron has built a reputation for meticulous craftsmanship and for favoring a simple palette of glass, steel and wood. She seemed like a perfect fit to convert the underutilized warehouse into a green mixed-use building. One of her biggest gestures was to connect the first-floor office to the main-floor living area (and a new master-suite penthouse above it) with a unique staircase fabricated by longtime collaborators Dennis Luedeman, a metal artisan, and Paul Endres, a structural engineer.
To showcase the renovation, Fougeron decided to distinguish between the old and new but bring them together in harmony. “In Europe,” the Amsterdam-born, Paris-bred architect has said, “there are many instances where you feel old and new can work together. You can infuse an old building with life by adding things it needs.”
In deference to the building’s history, the original loft would be kept raw, all the scars in the concrete walls on display, the plumbing lines and exposed sprinkler heads retained. “This wasn’t to be a precious space or covered up with pristine Sheetrock,” says Fougeron, who worked with project architect Todd Aranaz. Inside the original shell, the designers would “float” the new elements and treat them with more refined finishes to define them visually.
So the old space has a polished concrete floor, but the floor in the kitchen is poured resin. All the new custom kitchen cabinetry is highly finished (with low-VOC, nontoxic conversion varnish), and the countertops are Carrara marble. Cabinetry in the kitchen, which has a hidden refrigerator and pantry, is below the counters, so there is no impediment to sight lines into or out of the room.
It was agreed that the space was to be unencumbered by such mundane elements as walls. Even in the master suite there are only glass partitions. “When you walk into the place,” Fougeron says, “you can see all four corners of the loft.” Seating arrangements and understated, neutral carpets define different functions, although the kitchen is raised one step to give it even more identity.
The combination of renovation and modern intervention helped make this adaptive-reuse project truly green. “I like the word ‘green’ when it refers to something more than linoleum on the floor,” says Fougeron. “By taking advantage of solar orientation and the use of local materials, green can be woven into the design.”
Rather than being seen as a hindrance, issues of sustainability were integral to the development of Fougeron’s design, including her provisions for the home’s ample daytime light. Despite the tall ceilings and north-facing windows, the existing loft was dark and disconnected from the outside. Fougeron, who received her degree in architecture from UC Berkeley, solved the problem through a series of straightforward and innovative gestures that are typical of her work, which often explores light and transparency.
Additional skylights were an easy fix. Less obvious and in fact quite transforming was her creation of the internal 16-foot-square courtyard that pulls unfiltered light into the center of the building and divides the floor plan into its distinct areas of use. The size of the courtyard was no accident: It maximizes light from above within the confines of structural logistics, and it is placed in the path of the most light as the sun arcs overhead. The courtyard’s sliders also allow for cross-ventilation, at no energy cost at all. All the new glazing in the building is insulated and has a low-E coating; artificial light is provided by high-efficiency, dimmable T-5 fluorescent tubes.
Even though it was an extravagance given the project budget, the clients insisted on a glassed-in master-suite penthouse, the addition of which required seismic retrofitting of the entire building—complex, unglamorous and expensive (although not a bad thing to have done in a masonry building in earthquake country). Even with the added cost and construction, “The penthouse wasn’t a tough decision,” says Shimer. “It makes the entire project for us.”
The penthouse addition was dictated in large measure by Fougeron’s desire to exploit solar energy. It sits to the north of the courtyard so as not to shade the sun. Fougeron angled the glasscovered eave of the east-facing windows to allow winter sunlight in while doubly filtering out sunlight in summer. The angles of the penthouse structure give the home its nickname: the Grasshopper.
The exterior of the rooftop addition is clad in Cor-ten steel. This natural material was chosen for its durability as well as its reactive nature with the environment: Cor-ten is not sealed against oxidation, so the outside layer of it changes color from black to various shades of dark orange. This natural process forms a protective coating over the unoxidized steel underneath the ferrous “crust.”
The penthouse provides access to the new roof deck, which is covered in ipé wood. Ipé is a highly durable fast-growth wood that is gaining in popularity, especially for decking, because it resists rot, decay, insects and mold without toxic chemical treatments. It’s naturally resistant to splintering and fire, and it’s harvested from naturally sustainable forests.
Great architecture, it has been said, begins with great clients, and Fougeron is clear in stating that Shelton and Shimer qualify. As in the best collaborations, Fougeron was able to meet her clients’ specific needs while exploring the fundamental tenets of her own design philosophy. And that may well be one of the reasons this home won an Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects.