November 2012

Potrero Hill House Remodeled for Light

Steven Kurutz, Special from the New York Times

Lisa Koshkarian and Tom Di Francesco knew they had to renovate their house when they could no longer keep adult hours there. The couple had bought a 1930s Mediterranean-style home in Potrero Hill for $1 million in 2002, and had already spent $500,000 adding on a third-story master suite to take advantage of the neighborhood’s famously close-up, dead-on views of downtown.

But then came the birth of their children, Zia and Rex. Abruptly, the rest of the 3,600-square-foot floor plan — a small dining room sandwiched between the children’s bedrooms, with the kitchen just on the other side — had the couple on a toddler schedule.

“If you had anyone over or wanted to stay up after 7 p.m., it was a problem,” Di Francesco, 54, recalled recently.

Koshkarian, 46, added: “Anytime we would make any noise after their bedtime, it would be really disrupting.” As she spoke, Koshkarian was interrupted by Rex, four, who wanted a snack and was none too shy about saying so. Zia, six, twirled in a pretty dress in celebration of Saturday morning.

The couple considered moving. But after seeing several homes on the market, they had a greater appreciation of their own, with its good-size lot, flat backyard and loft-like master bedroom. Fans of modern architecture, they hired Anne Fougeron, a San Francisco-based architect whose Twitter handle announces “I like glass, minimalism, natural light and stainless steel,” to create a space that would be starkly modern but somehow family-friendly.

The challenge, Fougeron said, was solving the problem of flow, or lack of it. Her solution was to “flip the program” by putting all the spaces with quiet functions, like the children’s bedrooms, toward the front of the house, while creating a large living area in the back. As she explained, “The view out the back and the garden is actually what you want to focus on.”

To play up that view, but avoid the square-box look Fougeron refers to as “Dwell Light,” she designed a two-story wall of glass that juts in and out like a series of bay windows stacked on top of one another. The windows let in plenty of light and also increase the rear views slicing off toward the Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Tamalpais. “When the sun goes down, especially, it’s spectacular to sit in that chair and enjoy the view and the lights,” Di Francesco said, motioning to a white king-of-the-castle throne by the window.

Standing in the window, a visitor felt both thrillingly perched and on display. Isn’t the couple worried about peeping neighbors? “I’m a psychologist,” Koshkarian said. “So I think about our hidden exhibitionist desires.”

Di Francesco, a senior vice president of a real estate investment company, quickly clarified, “Maybe you have those.”

“Tom won’t admit to his exhibitionist desires,” Koshkarian said, unfazed. “I, at least, admit that there might be something inside me that wouldn’t mind people watching. I like the idea of feeling connected with things around me.”

Before the second renovation, which encompassed 2,800 square feet and cost around $285 a square foot, two staircases existed awkwardly at opposite ends of the house. Now a single perforated metal stair connects the two lower floors, creating an easy flow and offering access to the garden. The theme is visually echoed in the living area, where a perforated metal canopy hangs over the dining table, subtly separating it from the open kitchen and seating area.

Still, the gallery-white walls and matching white epoxy resin flooring throughout the house don’t scream child-friendly. Nor does the metal staircase, observed Koshkarian, who grew up in a modern home in San Diego designed by Ken Kellogg. “I think a lot of people can’t imagine how kids can live in a modern environment like this; it’s too austere,” she said. “Certainly they have to be really careful on these stairs. But any stair you don’t want a kid falling down.”

And the large, sparsely furnished living area brings the family together, Koshkarian added. “We have this big space where we wake up and make breakfast. The kids can come out when they’re ready; they can hang out here.” The open floor plan makes it easy to keep an eye on the children, she said, but it also gives the grown-ups “enough space that we can do our independent activities.”

But what about that modern sculpture next to the sofa, the one that looks like a child-size wheelbarrow made of old tin? Rex and Zia must find it irresistible. “I think our kids do appreciate art,” Koshkarian said. “When I say, ‘Don’t touch the sculpture,’ they know it’s not a toy.”

Looking at the living room floor scattered with Tinkertoys, though, a visitor was unconvinced. Should we bring in Rex as a material witness? “Of course, they’re very tempted,” Koshkarian allowed, adding, with a faint sigh, “They’ll put their Legos on it.”

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