You don't always get what you want...

The small house below was originally built in the 20’s in Alameda, California and is currently being renovated. Our client is a contractor, and stymied after a number of attempts at getting approvals for a design he came to us for some help in negotiating with the Planning Department in Alameda.

Photos of the Existing House Prior to Demolition

The “Island City” has a well-preserved stock of residential architecture that represents many of the distinctive periods of design found in the Bay Area, such as the Victorian houses in San Francisco, Craftsman houses in Berkeley, and the California Bungalow. Many of the bungalows in Alameda were built by speculative developers and were early examples of tract homes built to be affordable to the middle class. They were adorned with Craftsman details to mimic their more substantial neighbors. Alameda has become most well-known for the Craftsman and bungalow houses with Craftsman details. There is a strong public movement to retain the Craftsman details of the residential architecture by preserving the existing housing stock, and we had to navigate the design for the renovation given this context.

Typical Craftsman House & California Bungalow with Craftsman Details

We could have suggested that the existing structure was beyond repair – a tear down in effect – but our client was invested in saving as much of the house as possible and did not want to get into a protracted approval process. Based on Alameda’s guidelines we could avoid both review by the Historic Preservation Board and the Design Review Board if the staff planners approved the design as a “re-construction” and recommended administrative review only to the Historic Preservation Board. Since our client had already demolished most of the interior and removed plywood siding that had been installed over the original v-groove boards on the exterior we were able to get a good idea of how the original house was built. This particular house was an example of an aggressive simplification of the California Bungalow, and had almost no character defining details other than a simple gable porch and a mock dovecot.

Photos of the Existing House After Initial Demolition

Our initial design studies are represented by the sketches below. We developed a 3D model of the house and used hand-drawn sketches over the model to generate options. We wanted the renovation to fit within the guidelines for a “re-construction” but also express the current contemporary context. We proposed one design with a deep sunken entry to replace the gable form, a version with a large window opening into the living room to open the house to the street, and a version with a flat roof porch. Our client preferred the flat-roofed porch option so we further developed the design and submitted it to Planning for review. They objected to the flat-roofed porch and insisted that the design did not adhere to their guidelines and we needed to replace the gabled porch and add eave extensions on the sides and front.

Initial Sketches
First Design Review Submittal

We went back to sketching and developed a series of options to respond to Planning’s comments. We looked at a number of options with an asymmetrical gable for the porch form, and shared the sketches with the staff planners. They insisted that we make the porch gable symmetrical, but that the general direction was acceptable. We selected one of the options with the porch column bisecting a large front window and revised our drawings to reflect the design. Within two weeks we received approval from Planning and submitted our building permit set.

Revised Sketches
Final Design Review Submittal
Floor Plan

The project started construction during the winter and is ongoing, albeit at a slow pace. The whole house had to be raised to build a new foundation system under the existing footprint, as well as new footings for an extension at the rear of the house that will increase the size by enough square footage to turn what was a small one-bedroom into a two-bedroom house.

It is a rarity that we get to do everything we want to do in designing a house, and with stronger design review guidelines and review boards in most municipalities we have had to hone our negotiating skills and learn to pick the right battles to fight. This house does not try to do to much, is respectful of the neighborhood, and will provide an affordable starter home for a first-time home owner. It’s not so bad to go back to the basics sometimes.

Current - In Construction Photos