Most people think about downsizing when their kids move out. Lloyd and Diana Taylor went the other direction, creating a unique space that brings people together for big ideas and good causes.
When the Taylors' six children departed, the couple left their suburban family house and began searching for a space in San Francisco. They weren't looking for just any empty-nester condo, they were after something different; and several months in, they realized that they wanted a warehouse. The Taylors are involved in a number of organizations that support t arts and ideas, ranging from We Players (a group that turns public spaces into site-integrated theater) to Jeffersonian Dinners (gatherings of thought leaders to discuss issues).a
"We are on the board of several nonprofits, and we noticed that it’s very hard to locate spaces to host small groups for a reasonable price," Dana says. "Finding a spot to gather between 12 and 40 people for a cause can be a nightmare."
With that in mind, they started hunting for a home with seemingly impossible criteria: Something that would feel cozy for two, but could accommodate a sit-down dinner for three dozen. They found the answer in a South of Market industrial building that had been many things, including a warehouse and a garage. "Basically, it was a big concrete box," says Dana.
After they purchased it, a new dilemma presented itself: How to turn the nearly windowless building into their vision of a space so flexible that could be both a home and a vibrant gathering center. To make it happen, they hired Paige Loczi of LOCZIDesign and Stephen MacCracken of MacCracken Architects. The couple launched the project the way many people start a business: with a mission statement. "It helped us stay organized and kept us on the same page," says Dana. "When things got difficult or confusing, we could come back to the statement. It also meant that Lloyd and I had all the discussions and arguments before building got started."
The remarkable document begins this way:
"As I think about our home, I see it as an adventure in living, beginning a new era in our lives together. For this reason it is rather undefined. We have aspirations for adventure, for doing new things, yet neither of us is especially adventurous. We specifically rejected the more settled neighborhoods in San Francisco, choosing to live in SoMA...not the already developed area by the bay, but on the edge of renewal. We did not fall in love with a super building with lots of cool design potential under a battered façade. Instead, we felt called to this location and realized that this was a good opportunity...but is little more than a box architecturally."
After detailing a long list of thoughts and desires, the mission statement ends with the wish that the pedestrian structure be transformed into "a space that encourages us to live outside our boxes, yet provides a refuge when that adventure becomes just a bit too much."
In other words, they were saying: we have a big concept and we need some help making it happen.
"The Taylors are intelligent, wonderful people. I had never worked on a project that started with a mission statement, but it made perfect sense," Loczi says. "They have a very strong point of view, and this helped the team keep on track with that."
The couple gave the architect and designer freedom to explore. "We had the liberty to go into uncharted territory, to truly think outside the box," says Loczi. "At times, that can be unnerving—there’s a lot of pressure in someone telling you to go be a genius—but it pushed us design-wise."
In concrete terms, what that looks like are large, round, oculus-like skylights in the ceiling (the architect calls them "lenses"). No windows proved to be no problem, as light fills the spaces from above. MacCracken says he designed the circular openings as lenses through which to see the sky, and that also capture views of trees in the rooftop garden. On the interior the skylights are framed by a dropped wood-paneled ceiling. On the exterior, they are encircled by cylinders topped with north-facing slants that help control heat gain.
In the old days, there were smaller, rectangular skylights, likely installed to daylight the rooms when the building was used for industrial purposes. "The circular forms help break up the square building," says Dana. "Stephen MacCracken and his team made a real design statement with them, it’s part of the magic of what they did."
The angles in the dropped ceiling and in the floor help define the spaces in the expansive first floor. "The ceiling undulates in an angular motion, and the open space relies on it for visual divisions," says Dana. The floor also gently slopes in transition areas, such as the entry and in the corridor.
"Before, the building was basically a static box. Part of our idea was the notion of fitting something new into an existing form. The movement expressed in the ceiling and floors contributes to making it a dynamic space, and moving through the building is a kinesthetic experience," says MacCracken. "The varied heights of the floors and ceilings define the spaces relative to their uses and give them architecture."
Much of the furniture is equally as fluid. "We chose pieces that could be moved easily to make the space feel inviting for a few people and reconfigured to make way for a crowd," Loczi says. "There are two parlor-like areas, one for the two of them where they can cozy up with a cup of tea and one where we have modular upholstered furniture that can easily be set up for a reading or a small lecture." MacCracken refers to the public spaces as being in the tradition of "salons of Paris in the 1920s." Dana draws on a different era for reference, saying: "The furniture reminds me of a conversation pit from the 1970s."
The kitchen is a sleek, modern affair offset by two creative flourishes. The first is the backsplash designed by artist Justine Tatarsky depicting the owners’ lives together, complete with references to their children growing up and starting independent lives. The second is the bold, deep-fuschia color of the lower cabinets. The color references the pink bougainvillea that covers part of the exterior," says Loczi. "Dana isn't afraid of color at all. Elsewhere in the house we gave her the color she wanted in accent walls and niches. She wanted to be able to change the color—and she does."
That bougainvillea makes another appearance in the interior, this time in cut-outs in the sheets of hot-rolled steel that form the entry stair. The shapes mimic the colorful bracts that make the thorny vine a garden standout. "All along, there was a lot of effort spent on saving this single plant, and we wanted to have a connection to it on the inside," MacCracken says. He says that the custom pattern they created was meant to give people the sense of going up and reaching toward the light as they climbed the stairs; mimicking the upward growth of the bougainvillea vines outside.
The architect calls the stair itself an art piece. "It's a heavy object that anchors the space and works in concert with the slope of the ceiling to make an interesting play of geometry," he says. "It is a blade that pierces the space, and the steps cantilever off the blade."
In the master bath, Loczi designed a space that’s an homage to the intellectual life of her clients. "We used the mathematical representation of the golden spiral—based on the actual measurements for a Nautilus shell—to make a curved sanctuary," she says. "The wall has two bronze mathematical sine waves, and the tile set between them tile represents the couple and their life together." The space is topped with another eight-foot circular skylight.
To say this was a tricky build would be something of an understatement. "The team at Moroso Construction built a curved mock-up to test the structure and the interplay of materials," she says. The three-foot-by-five-foot test was so detailed, it included plaster, bronze, and tile. Loczi said that one of the reasons the contractors took the job was to execute the design of this bath, and their commitment to the project ran so deep the project manager and the master carpenter delayed retirement in order to finish the project.
The entire thing can be viewed as a complex geometry problem. "However, both of these people are engineers, so they appreciate things like this," she says.
Another notable feature was the idea of the homeowners. A circular glass elevator connects all three levels and the roof deck. "Lloyd discovered this system," says Dana. "It reminds us of those old fashioned messenger tubes they used to have in banks or a transporter. I think it appeals to the inner child in us."
The feeling of playfulness and being up for adventure that permeates the project is reflected in the couple’s new lives. Before becoming empty nesters, they lived in Foster City, a quiet suburban enclave on the San Francisco Peninsula, but a change of address changed everything. "Our new home is a lively space, and not at all static, it reflects our new neighborhood," says Dana. "We’ve fallen in love with the diversity in the surrounding neighborhoods and the ability to walk to everything. We’ve abandoned our car in the garage."
And what do the kids think about their parents who adopted a urban lifestyle in a home that acts as a 21st century salon? "They are a bit surprised," says Dana. "But they always knew we were cool."