The Henry Hill house, built in 1958, was a bit like a Jane Austen heroine when Bay Area-based Framestudio took it on as a commission: What it lacked in pedigree and charm it made up for with great bones and what one might call a spirited disposition. “I made a conscious decision, prior to knowing who the architect was, to listen to the voice in my head that said, ‘Don’t mess this up, don’t upstage it—don’t do much to this house because it’s amazing,’” recalls project designer Chad DeWitt. And while DeWitt and his team didn’t have the name of the architect or the original plans when they started, they did have a sixth sense about the property that proved vital over the course of the years-long restoration project.
Previous owners remodeled the hillside property in the 1970s, adding a den and modifying the guest bedroom windows to allow for more privacy—all of which disrupted the integrity of the original design. The current homeowners are empty-nesters who “said yes to a lot,” admits DeWitt. “They really trusted me on this.” Big on informal entertaining and casual gatherings, the homeowners needed a modern space that put functionality front and center. Framestudio, which also did the interior design for the project, had to revisit what made the ranch house remarkable while avoiding outmoded midcentury signifiers—no terrazzo, no carpeting. As such, DeWitt undertook a series of careful restorations that felt “akin to archaeology,” designed to bring the remodeled portions of the home into aesthetic unity with the whole.
“We’re not staunch preservationists,” he says, nodding to trendier touches like the blonde wood in the kitchen and other Scandinavian elements throughout. “There were places where a restorationist would have said, ‘You have to keep this.’ But we acknowledged that some things didn’t function and weren’t architecturally significant. We asked, ‘What would [the architect] have done with this house, in this year?’ Without the before photos you really can’t tell where we’ve been, and that’s by design.”
Framestudio brought back floor-to-ceiling glazing in what were children’s bedrooms and remedied some unfortunate paint choices with warm shades of gray, used throughout the home as a unifying palette. “When we first walked the house with our clients, they proposed eliminating some of the four fireplaces. And there was a moment where the client said, ‘I hate brass,’ and wanted to get rid of the fireplace in the den. I threw myself on it and said, ‘You’re not getting rid of this, this is one of the best features in the house!’ In other words, we determined they were a key part of the original fabric of the home, and since there was very little of the original interiors remaining, it was wise to keep them.”
Wide-plank flooring in solid oak is one new feature, used throughout the home and punctuated with tinted porcelain tiles from Mutina in the baths and den. The black brick fireplace in the living room is new, modeled on an existing fireplace in the kitchen to give it continuity. Solid oak cabinetry and a Dornbracht faucet lend heft and aesthetic gravitas in the kitchen. “I’m interested in how a handle feels when you open and close a door; if it smells, how does it smell? I’m not a huge fan of pretension and spending money to spend money. I try to have clients spend money on things they really interact with and then dial everything else back.”
The property, which overlooks Mount Diablo, is also surrounded by fire-retardant landscaping by Orr Design Office. “My agenda is future-proofing,” says DeWitt. “I’m on a campaign to teach clients what [amount] homes really need to be insured for.” The climate posed a challenge when it came to the home’s interiors, too. Hill had taken a passive approach to cooling to reduce the home’s reliance on air conditioning: overscaled roof eaves that, in some places, stick out almost 10 feet, operable windows and doors to take advantage of cross breezes, high ceilings, radiant heating. Most of the glazing has an eastern exposure, letting in the most light during the gentler morning hours.
But the radiant floor had been damaged beyond repair, with a forced-air system being added rather clumsily by a previous owner. “They ran the air ducts on the exterior of the house, under the giant eaves, exposed to the heat and cold of the outside environment,” says DeWitt. “Our solution was to make the system more efficient, updating the ducting and mechanics while prioritizing the aesthetics.” Aesthetics were tricky given the home’s flat roof and lack of attic space—Framestudio was in the sticky position of trying to figure out how to install heating and cooling systems without ducts on the roof. Luckily, the firm was working with an HVAC contractor who was willing to spend time in the field and think outside the box. The solution they came up with was to drop the ceiling four inches throughout the bedrooms (which fill one wing of the house) and tuck the ducts away above.
The result is as seamless as Framestudio likes it. “I once mistakenly claimed some of the new floor-to-ceiling windows were original,” remembers DeWitt. “We did such a good job, it’s hard to see what’s old and what’s new.”