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secrets to remodeling success

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February 2017 Newsletter

conversation with clients Lee Byron and Ash Huang part 2

In the January newsletter, we discussed how our clients' wish to have a spacious in-home studio helped shape the trajectory of their home purchase and remodel. For this edition, we are moving our conversation to other favorite parts of the house as we follow Lee and Ash upstairs to the second level. 

from an awkward puzzle to a light-filled retreat

Ash explains that the original bedroom was rather oversized but the master bath was quite small and awkward: being bisected by a dominant and unattractive glass block wall. Both Lee and Ash remember having reviewed many iterations of the floor plan during the schematic design phase. The final plan has vastly expanded the footprint of the master bath by coopting an existing closet. The result is a spacious room neatly organized into a calming and elegant grooming area, a floor-to-ceiling steam/shower enclosure, and a private toilet space. Custom sized mirror panels that match the height of the ready made LED lighting strips give the room a tailored look. 

Lee and Ash particularly relish the memories of the fun they had choosing the finishes and fixtures curated and presented by the designers. With all white cabinets and walls and floor completely cladded with pale grey porcelain tiles, this room perhaps best expresses the ethos of less is more. On his blog, our photographer Scott Hargis has this to say:

"Take a close look at the tile work in this master bath designed by building Lab -- you won't find better craftsmanship anywhere. Those tiles are not a millimeter out of place, even as they wrap up from the floor, even in the shower enclosure where they wrap over the threshold, into and out of the wall niche and onto the ceiling. Amazing! The slot skylight over the vanity makes this space glow -- and the glow is carried throughout the bath with panels of frosted glass."

last but not least: the kitchen

Going back to the main level, we get to enjoy once again the walk down those dramatic stairs mentioned in the previous newsletters. The living, dining, and kitchen areas in the great room form an arc which is paralleled by the panoramic view of the city outside. This space is articulated with building Lab's trademark details such as slim profile Blomberg window frames in anodized aluminum, invisible baseboards, super white painted walls; it terminates with an all white kitchen at the corner.

Looking at this well proportioned and fabricated kitchen, it is hard to believe it was not included in the original remodeling plan. Lee and Ash initially only wanted to replace the cabinet doors of the existing kitchen. When the remodel was well underway, more problems started to surface: the existing countertop was too high, and several cabinets were in bad shape. Once the decision to remodel the kitchen was made, the designers immediately went back to work. The idea of relocating the kitchen to the middle of the great room was considered and then ruled out. The final agreement was to keep the original footprint and everything was made to be more functional and refined. 

Highlights of the new kitchen: white Krion® countertop and white conversion varnished cabinet faces; cabinet doors have been custom cut to accommodate an existing undulating ceiling; corner wall cabinets next to the range have special bi-fold doors that improve access; corner base cabinets have special hardwares and accessories to utilize the storage spaces; Miele dishwasher door opens with a double knock.

survive and thrive in a home remodel

This being one of our largest and most challenging projects in recent years, it involved our entire staff and many specialty sub-contractors and artisans who were all grateful for the opportunities to expand their creative potential. At the end of our interview today, our clients Lee and Ash offer a few tips to those who may be planning a home remodel:
  • The sooner you plan for things, the better.
  • Have a comfortable margin in your budget to allow for contingencies and project expansion (Lee thinks doubling the estimated budget would be best, while most past clients were happy with a 10-20% allowance.)
  • Definitely move out of the house if you have an extensive remodel.
  • Be picky when you are selecting a design and building team.
  • Be patient and open-minded during the process. 
We agree that the secret to remodeling success is to be discerning and trusting at the same time. Lee and Ash enjoyed being part of the process: reviewing a ton of sketches and discussing the pros and cons of various solutions, witnessing the famously difficult San Francisco permitting process, and winning the cooperation and approval of their neighbors. 
All presentation photos by Scott Hargis Photography:
Profile image: great room with panoramic view
1. Before: existing master bath  2. During: construction of master bath
3. Entry to master bath   4. Vanity and makeup counter
5. Steam/shower enclosure  6. Kitchen
Superb tiling done by Rafael Anaya.  

a big thank you to the houzz community for voting us Best of Houzz 2017 for Design!

a bold art piece sets the tone for a master bath

Click here to read an article on Remodeling Magazine.

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creative decentralization

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January 2017 Newsletter

a different perspective: our clients' take on their home remodeling

In the two previous editions, we discussed the structural design, the craft of building as well as the management and scheduling of special trades in a unique residential project in San Francisco. Hope you will enjoy this unfolding as we bring you to the very beginning (the conceptual stage) and find out what were the needs and desires that helped shape this project. For this edition, we are super excited that we get to sit down with our clients Lee Byron and Ash Huang and hear their take on this year-long experience.

creative decentralization

It is not often that someone would tell you he decided to buy a house because of the basement. Lee and Ash recall having looked at many properties. When they came upon this one in Bernal Heights, they recognized the value of the fantastic location and the views, and sort of ignored the 'builder's grade' finishes of the interior. But what really clinched the deal was the potential they saw in the barely finished space at the bottom level of this four-story building. Being creative and tech savvy (he works at Facebook and she is an independent artist), the couple wished to have a spacious in-home studio where they could engage in a variety of digital and analog works. So, they asked a contractor friend to inspect the property and assure them that their remodeling plans were realistic. Originally, one had to go down a flight of stairs from the main level, pass the small laundry area, and double-back to the back of the garage to enter an in-law space, then go down another narrow set of stairs to access the lowest level which is connected to the back patio through a small door. That explains why they had never gone down there during the first year after they moved in, except when they gave a tour to their friends.

So, when building Lab's designers suggested flipping all the stairs to the opposite directions to improve the flow up and down to different levels , Lee and Ash jumped at the chance of radically transforming the building. The result is an open interior with distinct and yet connected spaces spreading through all four floors. Tailor made for a young professional couple's lifestyle, the house serves multiple functions as dwelling, work stations, artist studio, as well as entertaining venue. Elegant sets of stairs become the star features that seem to enable the burring of the boundaries between work, play, and relaxation.

what happens to that basement?

According to Lee and Ash, everything seemed to have fallen into place after the stairs were flipped. A portion of the original extra wide garage has been coopted as a new hallway that provides access to the laundry, a half bath, and a closet. The floor of the original in-law space is cut back from the exterior wall and the entire mezzanine is suspended from the ceiling with a steel rod. This technical feat allows the bottom level to be clean and without structural obstruction, and the entire back wall to be filled with glass windows and sliding doors. A custom built work top along the full length of the mezzanine is fitted with all the techie bells and whistles. Ash expresses much delight when she tells us she is really happy to have a real desk. Working from home, she does all of her digital stuff at this level, overlooking this dramatic space with a two-story wall of glass. The lowest level is where she does her physical studio art. She has her tools, books, and samples strewn all over the concrete floor. From this level, 10' high NanaWall® folding glass doors (inspired by similar setup at the Facebook headquarters) open up the entire space to the outdoor patio. Simple planting and seating, a custom fire pit, and strings of lights complete the picture for easy al fresco entertaining. Looking back up, the suspended floor above with the minimalist glass railing seems to have a dialog with the sleek dark wood stairs gracefully flowing down to earth. For both Lee and Ash, this realm below street level is obviously their pride and joy. They feel it has turned out exactly as they had imagined it, truly a dream came true.
Stay tuned to hear about other favorite parts of the house, and Lee and Ash's tips for homeowners who are planning a remodel.

lee and ash with nuri

Lee is a design engineer. He joined Facebook eight years ago and is responsible for designing some of their coolest apps. He credits his aesthetic sensibilities to having an architect mother. He has to travel quite a bit, working and coordinating with engineers at many different locations all over the world. He says that with this new house, he wishes to stay put more often.

Ash is a writer and artist. She has done product design and brand work for Pinterest, Twitter, and Dropbox. Her essays have been featured in Fast Company, Offscreen Magazine and Lean Out. Her first novel, The Firesteel, won First Place for literary fiction in the 3rd Annual Writer's Digest Self-published e-book Awards.
Photo captions L - R 
Profile image: a mile-long desk floating above the mezzanine floor
1. Before: existing garage   2. Before: existing in-law space
3. Before: small door to the patio at the lowest level   4. New stairs to the bedroom level
5. New stairs from mezzanine to main floor and bedroom level   6. Mezzanine   7. Artist space at lowest level   8. View from patio 
Presentation photos by Scott Hargis Photography

bL welcomes evan bowman to our design team

a bold art piece sets the tone for a master bath

Click here to read an article on Remodeling Magazine.

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happy 2017!

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December 2016 Newsletter
Several years ago, my sister and her partner, both avid art collectors, introduced me to what's often referred to as 'outsider art,' created by artists living with mental, developmental, or physical disabilities. Here in Oakland, Creative Growth Art Center is an incubator of sorts for such artists. The Center, the people who run it and especially the artists are truly inspirational. As we take a moment at year's end to express our thanks to our clients and associates, we wish to share this inspiration with you.  

May we all enter the new year with the same sense of whimsy, rigor and awe that we see in Ed Walter's piece below.

Gratefully, 

Stephen
This image of an untitled piece by Ed Walters is generously provided by Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland. It serves artists with developmental, mental and physical disabilities, providing a professional studio environment for artistic development, gallery exhibition and representation and a social atmosphere among peers.

EDWARD WALTERS
BORN: 1958
EDUCATION: Creative Growth Art Center, 2000-present; Berkeley High, Martin Luther King Junior High School

Edward is an architect of space in his art. Modular and geometric forms reminiscent of skyscrapers present like a Bauhaus metropolis, handily realized through Edward’s affinity for rulers and stencils. His latest work incorporates letter templates, using the stencil to piece together original maxims like, “Say In Your Office” or “Creative Need To Leave Me Alone”. What began as colorful typographic drawings have since expanded into three-dimensional wooden signs that appear perfunctory and instructional; however, upon closer examination they too read like a mismatched phrase with a wry sense of humor.

SELECTED EXHIBITIONS: 2015 Outsider Art Fair, New York Art Fair Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan Extra Celestial, Crosstown Arts, Memphis
portfolio: http://creativegrowth.org/artists/edward-walters/

Ed was selected for this year's first print edition collaboration with SF's Park Life, which can be purchased at the Creative Growth Art Center shop or online.

More original pieces of Ed's will be on view at the next iteration of the series of shows produced by Creative Growth at 836m gallery in SF. All shows are open to the public and Ed's works are available for sale starting Dec. 19. 

If you like to make a donation to support this amazing organization, you can mail a check to

Catherine Nguyen
Gallery Manager
Creative Growth Art Center
355 - 24th Street Oakland, CA 94612
or you can donate online

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2016 grand award winner 

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stairway to heaven

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November 2016 Newsletter

the building arm of a design-build firm

For everyone who works at building Lab, 'building X design' is more than just a marketing soundbite. We take pride in being able to deliver a seamless process from concept sketches to construction details driven by our interest in modern design. If you are an architecture fan, you probably already know that the cleaner and simpler it looks, the more complicated and time-consuming it is to achieve it. Just like the efforts required in creating that perfect moment in a stage performance, our behind-the-scene work involves both the vision and millions of artistic and technical decisions. To shed some light on this mystery, we turn to our long-time lead carpenter Marciel Dornelio who has tackled some of our most challenging projects.

stairway to heaven

In a radical remodel of a multi-story residence in a narrow hillside lot in San Francisco, flights of stairs form a spine that connects all four levels of living spaces . The original staircase to the upper floor was located at only a few feet from the street level front entrance. Behind this was another flight of stairs that went down to the basement. All of these were removed and the new stairways were flipped to the opposite directions. The new layout allows a viewer to enter slowly into the home, pausing at the entry foyer a bit, passing a guest room and bath on the left, while encountering a smooth and shiny stairway flying upstairs on the right, and arriving at a threshold where one can either stroll into the open living area, or turn to go up to the second level bedroom floor, or down to the mezzanine and garden level. 

In our September issue, engineer Nate Williams described how this marvelous floating stairway was designed. Marciel explains that he and his team was responsible for crafting the new treads to match the existing Brazilian Cherry floors. He also coordinated the scheduling and assisted in the proceedings of different special trades who fabricated the parts. Bob's Iron made all of the steel elements. After their crew assembled the stringer plates and the suspension rod, they had to leave the assembly loosely bolted. Then, Marciel and his team had to take off the outside plate, helped inserting the glass railing and gaskets (with precut slots to accommodate the bolts) inside and re-positioned the plates and tightly bolted the whole assembly. For a final touch, a 1" strip of black painted wood was inserted in front of the steel rod and also along the underside to cover the gap. 

celebrating the thresholds

Besides the irresistible stairs that compel one to go exploring up and down this house, Marciel wants to point out other special features that celebrate transitions from the public to the private realms. As the viewer heads upstairs from the main level, he will be facing the street side of the house. When he turns and approaches the master suite, he will pass a guest bath and a guest bedroom, both simply and elegantly furnished. An oversized pivot door is swung completely open to greet him. The door is bolted down to a receiver on the floor (with a wood cover plate stained the same color as the floor) and it can be swung open in both directions. Marciel explains that much care was taken to ensure the walls, the floor, and the ceiling were perfectly aligned. When the door is closed, it looks like this part of the corridor is magically sealed with no visible gaps.

Next is a small foyer where one can enter the master bath on the left, or enter the master bedroom on the right. Guarding the latter is another floor-to-ceiling door: a sliding one mounted on a special track that offers soft close at both ends. That means you can push the door real fast, and it still closes gracefully without slamming into the wall. 

where materials interact and trades intersect

When dealing with a remodeling project, homeowners sometimes wonder if the hardwood floor should be installed before the walls and baseboards. And what about painting? It's a mystery how different building trades can be orchestrated without one's work destroying another's. Here, at this entry to the master bath, Marciel reveals to us how things were put together. First, they had to make sure all the sub-floors were prepared such that the tiles and wood floorboards would make an even surface. Then, the wood floor was installed with the floorboards left extending into the bathroom. The area near the border was sanded. At the same time, the pale grey hexagonal tiles were installed. At the border, the hexagons were placed on top of the floorboards and their outlines were traced onto the wood. The floorboards were cut in place to make a perfect match. 

In the rest of the room, sheetrock was nailed with a 3" gap from the floor. The floorboards were installed and a 6" border around the perimeter of the room was sanded. After our trademark invisible baseboard (flush with the wall) was put in place and plastered smooth, the whole floor was then sanded. At this time, only a light bluffing was needed in the area close to the baseboard and the tile floor. The floor was then finished with multiple coats and the walls were painted last. 

the man from brazil!

Marciel moved to the Bay area from a small town in Brazil twelve years ago when he was only eighteen. After a stint in demolition work, he met Stephen and has been working for bL ever since. Marciel remembers fondly that in the early days, Stephen trained him in carpentry mostly with hand gestures and sketching since his English was not proficient. Marciel would get up at 5am every day to get ready. Stephen would show up in his pickup truck with his dog and the two would head to the lumber yard and then the job site. Being a quick and enthusiastic learner, Marciel always finished everything well at the end of the work day. Working from the ground up literally, Marciel did everything from shoveling, hammering and nailing, and eventually leading a whole field crew. He is getting married this December in Brazil. Non-stop partying is being promised and you are all invited!
Photo captions L - R 
Profile image: Stair railing detail 
1. Floating stairs   2. Looking down to main level landing and lower levels 
3. Steel plate stringers, suspending steel rod, and glass railing   4. Underside of stairs showing metal tread supports
5. Pivot door   6. Sliding door at master suite 
7. Entry to master bath   8. Brazilian Cherry flooring and invisible baseboard 
Profile, #1 and #2 by Scott Hargis Photography

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cool structures

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September 2016 Newsletter

cool structures and hot designs

As you may already know, the building Lab team does not shy away from geeky details. In fact, we embrace every opportunity for pushing the envelope both aesthetically and structurally when it fulfills the client's wishes and needs. From serious excavations and foundation works, to seemingly impossible cantilevers, floating stairs, and wall-to-wall glass, we relish the design and construction with much enthusiasm and glee. Certainly, we do have a secret weapon: in the person of structural engineer Nate Williams. In this issue, Nate takes time off from his busy schedule to chat with us at his Berkeley office.

what does a structural engineer do?

The short answer: "I make sure buildings stand up, or more importantly, don't fall down." Nate and his colleagues at Mosswood Engineering take the architectural plans and create a set of structural plans which delineate the bones of the building, sort of like x-ray images. They usually include the foundation, framing (columns, beams and joists which support floors and walls), and the lateral system. The lateral system is important in California as it deals with shear walls which resist earthquakes, and in other parts of the country, hurricanes.

stairs that not quite touch the floor?

In a dramatic remodel of a San Francisco residence, glass railing grows out of two steel plate stringers, and the whole set of stairs hovers a few inches above the landing. On the outside (facing the corridor), the smooth metal face of the stringer shows no signs of any fasteners. This effect is achieved by threading the pre-welded studs of the outside plate through the inside plate and angle tread supports (with pre-drilled holes). With the glass panel sandwiched in the center, the two identical plate stringers are fastened together tightly with nuts on the inside face (facing the wall). Near the bottom end of the stairs, a steel rod (welded to the inside steel stringer) suspends the whole ensemble from the joists of the floor above. Stay tuned for the photos of the finished stairs. You will see all the fasteners and supports disappear under the hardwood treads.

mezzanine suspended from the ceiling!

Another interesting feature in this project is found at the lower mezzanine. Instead of being supported with a column below, one corner of the floor is suspended from the ceiling. The above drawing shows how a steel rod is attached to the joists above with a special metal holdown and secured to the floor beam below with a nut, steel plate washer, and countersink. Again, a continuous steel plate with welded thread rods is attached to each side of the floor structure to secure the glass railing. The mezzanine and the garden level (bottom) in this multi-storied residence are characterized by ample ceiling heights and shallow depths. By eliminating visual distractions such as columns, the overall space feels cleaner and more expansive.

expand design possibilities or rein in wild schemes?

"In California, residential building designers are allowed to do remodels according to what are laid out in the code. Since the code is really restrictive, design possibilities may appear rather limited. With the help of a structural engineer, it is possible to obtain permits for unconventional features: extra large open space with beams supporting the joists; or long expanse of glass from wall to wall." We have exactly such a case at the garden level of this residence where a two-story-high wall is composed with fixed glass windows and glass sliders that open out to the patio. Nate has designed a custom fabricated moment frame (for earthquake resistance) consisted of steel columns and beams welded together on site. There is a double height glass expanse on the side and a wood beam between window systems in the middle to allow for the glass sliders (see drawings above).

Nate believes that almost any designs can be built nowadays. Most of the time, it is a matter of cost. He can advise on a solution which can achieve the desired effects and still work within the budget. In the case of the aforementioned custom moment frame, it is rather expensive. But it suits the situation better and allows for more flexibility.

mosswood engineering

Nate Williams has been working as an engineer in the Bay Area since 1998. His experience in existing wood construction makes him familiar with local building practices and adept at combining new with existing designs. He started his business in 2006 under his own name and rebranded as Mosswood Engineering in 2010. The name comes from a local park where he often practices personal balance and equilibrium as a proficient juggler and slackliner.
Photo captions: L-R
Profile photo: steel moment frame for a two-story-high space 

1,2,3,4.   details and construction photos of hanging stairs 
5.            details of suspended mezzanine floor
6, 7.        field crews attaching steel plate to floor structure
8,9.         details of steel moment frame

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hardwood flooring

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August 2016 Newsletter

hardwood flooring: a warm backdrop for your cool furniture

Together with the wall treatment, the material and finish you select for your flooring can affect the overall quality of your space greatly. While there are endless choices of flooring materials in the market, hardwood remains a perpetual favorite in residential remodels. Among its many advantages, it is often chosen for its resiliency, warm touch, and its ability to match with existing floors seamlessly. For the design-conscious, hardwood can be transformed into different personalities with the latest finishes and techniques. To learn more, we turn to Or Dobrin and Mark Whatley of Amber Flooring.

two main types of wood flooring

Or, owner and manager of the firm, starts with showing me 2 samples: one is a 3/4" thick piece of solid wood flooring , another is an 1/2" engineered wood plank.

He explains that a traditional solid hardwood floor is usually made with solid wood pieces 2 1/2" wide and 3/4" thick, with tongue and groove sides. Other thinner gages such as 1/2" or 5/16" are also available. Despite its being a solid piece of wood, only the top 1/4" of the board is really useful (available for re-sanding multiple times.) You cannot sand the wood down below the groove. In the East and West Coasts, where there are older traditional buildings, narrower solid strips (2" wide by 5/16" thick, attached to the sub-floor with top nails) are popular. In this type of flooring, about half of its thickness is useful, capable of being re-sanded four to five times in its life.

Another type of flooring that is gaining popularity is called engineered hardwood flooring. It is constructed with a hardwood veneer (ranges from paper thin, to 1/8" and 1/4" thick) laminated with multiple sheets of plywood laid in opposite directions. This "cross-ply" construction makes a hardwood floor that is more dimensionally stable and is less affected by temperature and humidity variations when compared to traditional solid wood floors. Engineered wood floors are very versatile; they can be installed in almost any interior conditions, including below grade, and on top of concrete slabs. They also come in a wide variety of widths and thicknesses, making a custom look possible.

installation and finishes

Mark, project manager and certified inspector, has worked on many highly refined projects with building Lab. In this type of custom work, unfinished hardwood strips or planks are first installed, then sanded smooth by using a drum sander (from rough to fine grits). An edger is used for the borders. Finally the surfaces are brought together into one consistent whole by using a buffer. Depending on the design, stain can be brushed or mopped on, and then three coats of clear finish are applied on top. He explains that the resistance to scratches and dents depends on both the hardness of the wood specie and on the finish. As examples, he points out that sand and grits on the shoe can scratch the finish, while a pebble embedded in the sole can dent the wood, and also scratch the finish as the foot drags it out of the dent. Obviously, spiky heels can easily dent the wood.

In terms of finishes, there are two main kinds in the market: oil-based polyurethane and the newer water-based urethane. Traditional poly has a rich amber color and is often selected to match existing flooring. Many clients with modern interiors prefer Bona® (a leading water-based finish) for its clean natural look that doesn't yellow with age. It is better for the environment and indoor air quality since it has lower VOC (volatile organic compounds). With less of an off-gassing problem, homeowners can move back to their house soon after their hardwood floor is completed. About 80-85% of the sanding and finishing pros at Amber Flooring are certified by Bona®.

tips for homeowners

  • One important trade secret that Or and Mark shows us is called acclimatization. They take raw wood into the project house to let it get used to the typical condition of the house. The strips or planks are stacked in a 'matchsticking' (crisscrossing) fashion so that air flow can get through. This is to minimize expansion and contraction after installation.
  • For the same reason, it is good practice to maintain a consistent indoor environment if you are going to be away for an extended period. A stale interior with a drastic change in temperature and humidity can cause warping or buckling.
  • Select the wood specie and finish to fit your lifestyle and budget: oak, maple, and American walnut are all versatile; harder exotic wood species and strand woven bamboo are slightly more expensive to install; Bona® Traffic HD is one of the most expensive finishes but it may well be worth the expense in the long run.

Amber Flooring

Founded in 1992 by Ilan Zamir, Amber Flooring grew from a one-man operation into a well known company of fifteen employees today. They specialize in custom wood flooring, intricate staircases, and offer carpet, vinyl, and Marmoleum® flooring products and installation service. They source their products from North America, South America, and Asia, either with direct importation or through other local suppliers.
Photo captions: L-R  (interior projects designed by bL, photos by Scott Hargis.)
1. Quarter sawn oak solid hardwood plank  2. Clear American Walnut
3. Solid wood plank (top 1/4" useful)  4. Engineered wood plank (top 1/8" useful)
5. Solid white oak select custom finished on site  6. Engineered pre-finished hardwood flooring  
7. Amber Flooring showroom  8
. L-R: Or Dobrin, Mark Whatley

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design as a performing art

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June 2016 Newsletter

how design happens

Being a creative process, architectural design evolves from intuition, artistry, experiences, and most of all a shared discovery between the designer and the client. Sometimes, a client would come to building Lab with a pretty detailed vision. Very often, he or she would start with a vague idea: about something not working in their existing floor plan, or a wish to open up the space. In this edition, we chat with bL's senior designer Hideaki (Hide) Kawato to get more insights about how a modest request blossomed into a treetop retreat for grownups.

floor plan as the plot line

The client, a venture capitalist, art collector, world traveller and sportsman, approached us about a new powder room for the top story of his family residence on the north slope of Russian Hill, an exclusive neighborhood of colorful old buildings, some dating back to the 19th century. The existing master bedroom, a small office, and adjacent family room and sitting room all shared one dark and cramped bathroom located at the center of this floor. The family room and sitting room, with panoramic bay and city views, were used frequently as entertainment space for grownup friends. The teenage children have their own venues in other parts of this large residence.

Hide recalls that at first glance, the simplest solution would have been adding a powder room by enclosing a small roof deck off directly from the family room. Upon further investigation and discussion, it became clear that a much better aesthetic and functional outcome could be achieved by reorganizing the floor plan. Our design team (Stephen and Hide working closely together) carved out a part from the old bath to make a new powder room accessible from the hallway and main stairs. The remaining part of the old bath is combined with the enclosed roof deck to create an en-suite master bath with an adjoining dressing area.

glimpses and bounces: playing the light like music

Hide and Stephen got quite a bit of inspiration and cues from the site and the client himself. The floor-to-ceiling entryway is in keeping with the grand scale of the residence. The play with the variegated light in the foliage creates an indoor/outdoor shower experience. Blue sky and lush trees are visible from the shower through a large picture window, while light filtered by the greenery splashes over the counter through a long, low view window. A new skylight straddles the master bath and the powder room. Transom glass around the perimeter of the powder room allows glimpses of light bouncing through both the bath and the powder room as well as the new dressing area.

materials and details are the main actors

White walls form a quiet backdrop for the bold modern art and rich teak cabinetry. An 8-foot-long custom concrete countertop with integrated dual sinks anchors the space with its earth tone and sculptural feel. Handmade tiles add to the room’s warmth with their natural color variations and pleasant tactile quality. Our partner Jeff King & Co did a fantastic job in building and fabricating. Custom details such as cabinets with no visible pulls (touch latch), sliding glass doors with tracks that disappear into the ceiling and a handle carved directly into the sandblasted glass allow the materials to speak for themselves. See more photos...
 

taking a shower is a heightened experience

From a simple idea of adding a powder room to reorganizing the entire top floor as a retreat and entertainment area for grownups, our design team worked closely with our client every step of the way. Indeed, the selected color palette and materials had a lot to do with the client's preferences. Without the benefit of a big view, the master bath is now a private oasis nestled in the trees.

best of east and west

Hide's passion is to help clients to realize their visions in creating custom modern homes that elevate everyday activities to special experiences.

He credits his early interest in architecture to his having an engineer father and a Martha Stewart inspired mother. Growing up in Japan, he also developed a deep appreciation for simplicity, beauty, and nature. These instincts were further enriched by his experience of indoor/outdoor living in an Eichler home after moving to California. After college, Hide did a stint in traditional design/build, wearing a tool belt on job sites during the day, and designing on the computer at night. He joined bL's modern and design focused practice in 2008 and the rest is history.
Photo captions L - R 
1. View of master bath from dressing area  
2. Bold modern art sets the tone   3. Skylight straddles both bathrooms; transom glass allows glimses of light bouncing through the rooms
4. Entryway with concealed pocket door   5. Powder room
6. Before: old bathroom with no views or light  7. Close up

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bringing dreams to reality

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May 2016 Newsletter

dissecting a success story

For some, hiring a design-build firm for a home remodel is a straightforward business: you take a list of the client's needs and wishes, and through planning, drawing, and construction, give it physical shape in the form of spaces and structures. While this is true in the general sense, oftentimes a great project is the result of a complex collaboration among the client, the designer, and the key field crew on the job. For this edition, we get to chat with building Lab’s own Stephen Shoup to find out more about how one beautifully completed project came into being.

it begins with a dream

In this design and construction of a garden level great room which won a 2016 REMMIES AWARD from the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, our clients were a busy professional couple with two young children. They initially came to bL with a rather modest wish of creating a multi-purpose family space/guest quarters with a full bath and a laundry. The project area was the unfinished basement (with a 7' ceiling) of a traditional residence with three bedrooms and one bath on the main level. 

Stephen recalls having identified 3 important design goals immediately after the initial consultation with the clients:
  • The transition from the main floor down to the new space is smooth but unfussy.
  • The space will not feel like a basement.
  • The outdoor patio will not feel sunken.

problem solving

Along the way, the clients made several courageous decisions that were critical in shaping the final result. Originally, the major electrical panel and meter were mounted on one end of the wall where the glass sliders were going to be located. Moving these unsightly obstacles to the garage was not an insignificant expense item. Secondly, a steel beam had to be inserted above the ceiling line such that a floor-to-ceiling glass wall effect could be achieved. Stephen credits the clients for being engaging and decisive: "They could digest lots of information in a timely manner and were able to respond." This is really important in a project that involves the demolition, excavation, and rebuilding of an old basement. 

from dreams to reality

The overall impression of this project is one of expansiveness, simple elegance, and warmth. There is a rich interplay of materials and articulation of details as one transitions from the traditional main level into the dramatic modern space below. Extensive excavation results in a 9' plus ceiling in the lower level. Wall-to-wall glass and sliders open up the space to the patio. The same tone of concrete floor throughout (with smoother texture in the interior) further enhances the seamless indoor-outdoor feeling. A layered horizontality in the landscape design leads the eye gently from the concrete floor up to the garden and the fence beyond.

As in any creative process, design is a shared discovery. The development of mutual trust between the client and the designer is key to success. In approaching each new job, the bL team usually works out several options for the client to decide, taking budget and timeline into consideration. Stephen then communicates his excitement about the possibilities and also fine-tunes it according to the client's sensibility and function requirement.
 
In this project, Stephen recognized early on that his clients were creative and entrepreneurial, and they were open to something more than just utilitarian functions being fulfilled in this home remodel. The scope had gradually expanded as a result of a deepening understanding and appreciation of the quality of the environment on the part of the clients. They wanted this to be their family home for a long time to come. See more photos…

a hands-on designer

With a background in architectural design and carpentry, Stephen is well versed in lofty design theories as well as geeky technical terminology. He has a hand in everything we do here in building Lab, from concept sketches, specific construction details, to business management. Nothing is too big for him to grasp the whole picture, or too small for him to try it on for size. Here, you can see Stephen squeezed himself into the play nook tucked under the stairwell.

Photo captions L - R 
1. Family space opens out to patio   2. Patio and garden beyond
3. Before: original doorway to backyard   4. Before: stairwell door and water heater
5. Enclosed stairwell with play nook   6. Landing with vertical stainless steel cable
7. Corridor flanked by bookcases   8. Night view from patio

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the art of seeing

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March 2016 Newsletter

seeing is feeling

Much like a movie director scouting a location for a scene, an architectural photographer walks into a building with all of his senses in high alert. "It is my goal to record that initial emotional response, such as the kind one gets when going through a small and dark passage and entering into an expansive and light-filled space. When a viewer sees my photograph, I want him to have the exact same feeling as if he had the actual physical experience," says Scott Hargis, our long-time collaborator.

seeing is believing

A frequent misconception about photography is that people believe it is an exact recording of physical spaces or matters. In reality, a photo renders a 3-D space onto a 2-D medium. A camera lens is not equal to a pair of human eyes. Human eyes can look at a bright surface and discern the details, then turn to a dark surface and still can discern the details, which the camera lens cannot. Human eyes can always perceive depths while the camera lens relies on the tones of light (bright, medium, and dark) and converging lines to create a perspective. Sometimes too much natural light can make a photo look flat. It is often blocked with dark curtains and artificial lighting is used instead. Scott explains that a photographer uses many tools and techniques to make a representation of reality that is more true than real.

In this remodel of an unfinished basement into a garden level great room in San Francisco, Scott tries to capture that excitement as he walked through the main floor of a traditional residence and stood at the threshold of the new stairwell. The tall window accentuates the ceiling height and floods the space with natural light. The wood panels with a lighter tone at mid distance wrap around and continue on the ceiling of the lower level. They invite and guide you down into the new space. Once you turn the corner, the drama is enhanced as the conventional stairs become floating logs made from reclaimed oak. In the above left photo, a gauze curtain was attached to the outside of the window to soften the light and obscure the sidewall of a neighboring house. The ceiling lines were included in the shot to clarify a jog in the wood paneled wall. 
 

the art of seeing 

In this remodel of a suburban residence in Marin, the entry is at the lower level. In contrast to the previous project, Scott wants to express the designer's intent to indicate something interesting is happening above on the main level. The left image shows the stairs as they were during the photo shoot at 3pm in the afternoon. Scott used artificial lighting to enhance and brighten the rich wood tones of the treads. He focused a spot light through the pendant fixture up above to cast contrasting shadows on the wall. He positioned the camera such that none of the jogs of the handrail would be obscured by the vertical metal rods. The finished shot on the right shows the entire handrail dancing up in sync with the steps. A thin strip of brightness accompanies the stairs as they climb up as the top of the baseboard was highlighted with yet another spot light during the shoot.

being true to the design

Scott believes in using his tools and techniques so that viewers can see the design in the best light. Constant communication with the design team is a must as this is an art of collaboration. Having worked with building Lab for years is definitely a plus. He can appreciate and understand the evolution and continuity of Stephen's design philosophy. When he encounters one of our new projects, he immediately puts it in relation to other bL works. This experience informs him in mysterious ways. Somehow, it works!

ready to shoot

Scott Hargis is a widely recognized interiors and architectural photographer based in the San Francisco Bay area.

Scott creates artistic photographs that communicate more than just basic information about a room or structure. His compositions reveal the intent of the designer and accurately convey the feeling of being in the space itself. He relies on traditional field techniques and attention to detail to create images that feel alive and authentic without excessive digital manipulation.

Photo captions L - R 
1. SF Great Room entry stairwell   2. SF Great Room floating stairs
3. Marin Residence stairs to main level without lighting   4. Marin Residence stairs with lighting
5. Blocking the flat natural light   6. Spot light through a pendant fixture
7. Scott Hargis at a shoot

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mastering the master bath

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February 2016 Newsletter

continuing the conversation with chris rogers

Over the years, quite a few prospective clients have wondered if it might be difficult to execute modern design in an older building. Chris contends that in general, new construction is easier since the progression of work is more logically and predictably laid out. In remodeling an older building, there are often hidden and unexpected challenges. Existing walls are almost always not true and plumb. Old floors tend to slope instead of being level. Certainly, good outcomes begin with good designs and accurate drawings. But ultimately, each perfect execution is done in the field with coordination and supervision by the designers. The lead carpenter in the project is charged with figuring out a lot of details in situ.

mastering the master bath

Regarding the numerous interesting projects he has worked on, Chris thinks the bathroom remodel stands out as the category which best embodies the design philosophy of our firm. With relatively simple and straightforward function requirement, the bathroom lets the materials and forms shine. 

In this remodel of a suburban residence in Marin, clean lines and restrained material choices brighten and update the interior. One of building Lab's trademarks in bathroom design is the use of a single type of large format floor tiles throughout the room. In this case, the porcelain tiles step up onto the shower floor which slopes in one direction towards the linear drain. The decision of whether to step up or create a level condition with contiguous bathroom floor is controlled by design, budget, and logistical considerations. If it were new construction, then a level entry into the shower is easily achieved as the floor supports would have been designed to allow for the slope.

A feature that catches attention is the way wall tiles are installed flush with the drywall. Each tile plus mortar and backer usually come to 1 1/2", while a typical drywall is 5/8". To compensate for the difference in thickness, plywood is nailed on the studs under the drywall (the technical term is "furring out"). This is a good example of the kind of extra work that is required to create a simple look. Another favorite design element is a narrow and tall window. White laminated glass preserves privacy and baths the space with diffused natural light. The white console style trough sink with wall mounted walnut cabinetry, the mirrors with integral lights, and the under cabinet lighting all contribute to the fresh modern look. 

modern design for a late 19th century building

Featured above is a master bath in an Edwardian which won a Grand Award from Remodeling Design Magazine in 2015. It is a great example of how modern design combined with fine materials and precise detailing can feel entirely at home in a traditional building. Tall, thin mirrors accentuate the high ceilings and complement the original window. Note the subtle custom details such as the integral LED lighting wrapping around the mirrors, and a shower glass partition installed in such a way to give the illusion of cutting across the quartz counter and shelving. Suspended walnut cabinetry with book matched grain pattern adds elegance and warmth. Much care and skill are involved in the cutting and installation of these panels. A small mistake means the whole cabinet face will have to be replaced.

Around the corner, a small powder room is created by closing off the end of a long hallway. Since the room is small and narrow, everything is done to make it feel spacious and not an inch of space is wasted. The toilet is wall hung with the tank concealed. A narrow and long counter with suspended walnut cabinetry lines one wall with a super small vessel sink sitting on one end. A large horizontal mirror appears to be floating right into a wall niche. In reality, the mirror is mounted on a backing wrapped with a thin strip of LED lighting all around. The wall niche is made of MDF and is painted the same color as the wall to create the illusion that it is carved out from the wall.

Marrying the new with the old is our passion; it is the essence of remodeling. It entails a varying set of contextual challenges and is a major factor in keeping the attention and interest of creative minds like Chris's.
Photo captions: L-R (all photos by Scott Hargis)
1. Master bath in Marin - shower   2. Master bath in Marin - trough sink and vanity
3. Master bath in a SF Edwardian - view of the vanity from the shower  4. Powder room in a SF Edwardian

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complication of being simple

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January 2016 Newsletter

what makes it modern?

When asked about what attracted them to building Lab, our past and prospective clients often answered without hesitation, "simplicity and cleanness". Along with open floor-plans and structural clarity, simplicity (in lines and details) is certainly one of the most recognized hallmarks of modern design. Not coincidentally, simplicity is an important goal of our design team and its execution depends on the experience and skill of our carpenters. To understand how everything can come together seamlessly, we turn to our long time master carpenter Chris Rogers. 

it's not easy being simple

Like most established woodworker and artisans, Chris came from traditional modes of building whereby ornamentations (such as crown moldings and baseboards) are used to hide the seams and differences when different materials interact. In modern architecture, however, extremely precise construction techniques are required to create the clean connections. When the design calls for a wall of glass to disappear into the ceiling, the frame is concealed above the ceiling line. Sometimes, a thin metal piece is used to define the ceiling edge where the window shade will roll down from a hidden groove. Similarly, window frames can be made to disappear into the floor and the wall. In this case, the full thickness of the frame is visible on the exterior of the building, but it is mostly covered by the wall and the floorboards inside.

Another feature that attracts both admiration and curiosity is the way modern interior walls appear to be hovering less than an inch above the floor with no baseboards in sight. In fact, gypsum drywalls are installed above wood baseboards (both are attached to the studs) along the same plane. The bottom of each baseboard has been notched out to form a 3/8" reveal. The face of the drywalls and baseboards are then plastered such that the two materials are blended into one whole.

a perfect corner

In this elegant au pair suite tucked under an existing garage, white laminated glass with bronze anodized aluminum frame forms a minimalist sculptural form at the entry while enclosing a shower inside. This is a double pane assembly with a white synthetic fabric sandwiched between two layers of glass. It was chosen over sand blasted or acid etched types because it would offer superior privacy, safety, and ability to make a clean corner. After the panels were cut precisely for a miter joint, they were clamped in place with silicone bead. Strip lighting above the door and a stainless steel threshold extending across the whole width of the entry offer both function and architectural definition. 

things have to line up

In this small studio apartment, refined details and clean lines make the space more expansive and functional for its many purposes: as an au pair suite now, as an entertainment space for the parents later, and eventually as a dwelling for an aging grandparent or a boomerang kid. Note that the pocket door slides close and lines up perfectly (thanks to ceiling tracks and metal floor guides) with the cabinets to hide the custom kitchenette, and the large cabinet in the middle cleverly conceals a murphy bed.

the master carpenter

Chris's interest in the trades developed early, working summers with his father on various residential construction projects. After a stint in college studying art, lit., and music, he settled in Berkeley in 1991. His passion for fine woodworking grew as he worked building custom homes. Chris took a break from construction in 2000-2001 to study furniture making with the late James Krenov, renowned author and furniture maker, at the College of The Redwoods in Fort Bragg. He built cabinets and furniture independently in the Bay Area until he started working with building Lab in 2003. He's still here!
Architect: Andrew Fisher, Fisher Architecture
Design development and general contracting: building Lab
Photos  (#3 and #8 are by Muffy Kibbey): 

1. Expanse of glass disappears into the ceiling  2. Window frame mostly concealed by the wall and floor boards; interior wall with no visible baseboard
3. Exterior view of au pair suite  4. Entry defined by white laminated glass corner
5. Closeup view of entry  6. Shower enclosed by white laminated glass; tiled floor slopes down to drain
7. Living room with kitchenette  8. Pocket door closed to conceal the kitchenette
9. Chris Rogers in his element

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happy 2016!

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December 2015 Newsletter
There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. - Albert Einstein
May your new year be filled with wonders and delights! -The building Lab Team
This image 'Galaxy Cubed' is generously provided by Fusions Designs Gallery.

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stephen and taya at home 

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