Behind the Scenes / Potrero Hill Duplex

"Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context - a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan." -Eliel Saarinen

Rendering of the future Potrero Hill Duplex

Rendering of the future Potrero Hill Duplex

I love this quote from Eliel Saarinen because it succinctly describes what is essential to creating great design, and is something I constantly strive for in my work. To walk you through my design process for a building, here's the short story of our Potrero Hill Duplex. 


When I began designing this project, I began with the interiors of each unit. Who are the families who will be living there and what are their needs? How should the spaces flow to enhance one's daily rituals? What combination of elements creates a well-crafted, comfortable home? What is the feeling we want to create in each room? From there, these considerations had to be married with the ideal interaction of the two units. How much privacy does each unit require? What spaces can be shared and should be shared to enhance neighborliness?


In short, these questions led to the design of a top-level penthouse with a roof deck, and a two-level family home with a deck and master suite opening to the yard. With both main entry doors on the second level, a reverse floor plan was designed for the family home with all bedrooms on the first floor. (I'll be sharing floor plans in a future post.)


The interior spaces then began shaping the exterior form of the building, creating a dialogue that not only had interior needs informing the exterior form, but also exterior needs informing the interior spaces. In San Francisco, there are strict residential guidelines to how a building must look on the exterior to retain the character of a street. To share a consistent language with our neighbors, we had to mimic the second floor entry ways and bay windows of the neighboring multi-units, even though the existing home has neither. This was not a linear process at all, but involved much back-and-forth, seeing how the interior decisions affected the exterior and vice versa. Dozens of configurations were tried to finally arrive at a harmonious interior and exterior composition that had minimal compromise to function and form.  


The context is always considered from the beginning to provide the boundaries of what is possible. But it's especially relevant when designing the exterior and how it relates to the street. When deciding on the exterior building materials of corrugated steel and stucco, I drew upon the history of the neighborhood. Formerly a blue-collar and working class community next to the factories, warehouses, and shipyards in Dogpatch, Potrero Hill started attracting tech professionals in the 1990's. While mostly gentrified at this point, the character of the houses and buildings in Potrero Hill are incredibly diverse due to development occurring over many decades. Because corrugated steel is affordable and durable, it's often used for industrial and commercial buildings and is still commonly seen in the Dogpatch. The prevalence of stucco buildings in California is tied to the influence of Spanish Mission-style architecture, and it felt right to combine these two very different materials in a modern way given the diverse nature of the neighborhood. The contemporary design of the house is true to its place in time and the way people live today, while the exterior materials give a nod to its history.


Throughout the design process, these considerations push and pull at each other to create a singular solution that fits the needs of the client and context. It requires a lot of hard work to get there, but you know you've arrived when you stop asking yourself, "what if...?" The design is then, finally, where it needs to be.

Inspiration / Potrero Hill Duplex

In no particular order, here's a selection of some of the images that inspired the Potrero Hill Duplex.

Stairs  (   image source   )

Stairs (image source)

Daimata Granite  (   image source   )

Daimata Granite (image source)

Terrazzo  (   image source   )

Terrazzo (image source)

Skylit bath  (   image source   )

Skylit bath (image source)

Vanity  (   image source   )

Vanity (image source)

Floor to ceiling bookshelves   (image source   )

Floor to ceiling bookshelves (image source)

Plant-filled courtyard  (   image source   )

Plant-filled courtyard (image source)

Balconies  (   image source   )

Balconies (image source)

Lightwell  (   image source   )

Lightwell (image source)

Work in Progress / Introducing Potrero Hill Duplex

Just over a year ago, I started a fantastic new project in San Francisco that is somewhere in between new construction and a gut renovation.

Here's a couple photos from the real estate listing to give you an idea of the place:

BEFORE: The non-descript facade.

BEFORE: The non-descript facade.

BEFORE: A diminutive little house in between to two towering buildings.

BEFORE: A diminutive little house in between to two towering buildings.

For this project my client has several high-level goals to hit:  

  1. Add as much square footage as possible

  2. Optimize usability of space

  3. Design a home that will be widely appealing yet unique

Now after one year, I'm a couple weeks away from submitting the permit application. This is what it took to get to this point:

  • Intense studying of the San Francisco Planning Code, Residential Design Guidelines, and various bulletins to fully understand the maximum buildable area we could achieve.

  • Numerous visits to the San Francisco Planning Department to get clarification on said code, guidelines, etc.

  • Creating a cohesive concept for the client's desire to have a sanctuary within the city.

  • Many, many iterations of floor plan designs (first as a single family home, then as a 2 unit building) to optimize space, circulation, lighting, and ease of use.

  • Building a 1/4" scale physical foam core model to help the client visualize the space, see how the spaces fit together, and provide feedback on the design.

  • Hiring and working closely with a geotechnical engineer, civil engineer, structural engineer, and architect to provide input and required documentation and reports.

  • Sending out notifications of the proposed project to all the surrounding neighbors and listening to their concerns.

  • Historical research into the property (using microfiche and going to the public library!) because the building is over 50 years old.

  • Filling out many, many application forms.

Fingers-crossed that this permit submission process goes well....