The story behind 40 French Creek

San Mateo Highlands Eichler: Whole house remodel and office addition.


On a Sunday afternoon about three years ago I was in my backyard with a beer in my hand, doing some grilling and chatting with my brother in law. My wife came to me to say that there was someone at the front door who wanted to talk with me about a house project. I told her to invite him back and give him a beer. That is how I met Justin Schuster. He turned out to be one of the most involved clients in the design process with whom I have ever worked. It became a regular meeting a couple of weekend afternoons a month for over a year as we devised, revised and perfected a set of plans for the project. Justin was a part of every decision.

At the outset I asked the question which I ask all of my clients. “Do you have any photos of houses, rooms, ideas which you like?” Some clients have a file of ideas. Clippings, brochures, photos of bathrooms in resort hotels where they’ve stayed, etc. I gave Justin and Jennifer a stack of my old design magazines and told them to get to work. A few weeks later they had a selection of about four dozen photos torn from magazines for us to review. It was not even apparent to them just how revealing their selections were. Taken from different sources over a period of a few weeks, they hadn’t actually looked through them as a collection until we met and I went through them. In doing so I found many examples of horizontal wooden wall paneling, corner window effects, dark natural wood cabinetry with lighter stone counters, horizontal media cabinets, etc. From there the design evolved.

Justin selecting slabs of stone

Between my schedule, delays in getting the County to accept some of my engineering ideas, weather, etc. it seemed as if the project would never get off the ground. Once it did we went fast. Justin rented an apartment for 6 months asking if that would be enough time to completely tear apart his house and put it back together. They moved back into the new house 6 months and one week later. Though, we have been “polishing the doorknobs” ever since.

40 French Creek is among my favorite projects. Not simply because Justin and Jennifer were so great to work with, but because, like 15 Burgoyne Court, 2028 Lexington, and 2260 Allegheny it is a project in which I was able to conceive and execute the entire house. This goes back to my interest in maximizing the “Eichler’ness” of an Eichler house. I have actually remodeled that particular Eichler floor plan, in one form or another, about 7 times. It is like a Japanese Zen painter who paints the same Cherry tree for forty years. I have had the enjoyment of trying different approaches for each project. At 40 French Creek, as at 40 Burgoyne Court, the houses are set at the inside of the court where the lots are oversized. This allows for the expansion of the floor plan to an extent not possible on the same layout at the 15 Burgoyne Court, 10 Burgoyne Court, 5 Burgoyne Court, 20 White Plains, etc. houses. So, that increases the options. Another factor is that the houses face different compass directions and some of them are mirror images of the others. This means light sources are different in the rooms. Some of these houses have long range views, some are more constricted. All of this makes each house, each set of design problems, individual.

At 40 French Creek I wanted to open the main living space to the air around it. This house doesn’t have a long range view. But it does have a large yard outside of the living room. By extending the living room six feet, removing the fireplace, and altering the support structure so that the visible structure is minimized I was able to “lift’ the roof until it appears to be a great wing floating above the open space of the main room. This was accomplished by the use of steel posts, new beams, and a generous application of hold downs and steel brackets. Painting the ceiling, beams, eaves and fascia all Icicle White not only gives it a lighter feel, but having all of it painted the same color creates an impression that the entire roof and beam structure could have been pre-assembled and craned into place. This process of breaking the parts of the structure into discreet elements by their finish treatment is part of what gives these projects their impact. They become, visually, simple forms assembled into a living space.

My design goal was to use the garage as a mass focus. By cladding the entire garage in the Huangana siding it becomes a single architectonic mass which the rest of the house rotates off of. The openness of the main living space is enhanced by its’ contrast to the mass of the garage cube. Those spaces become ephemeral. There is a clarity and simplicity to the space which, to me, is elegant. 

I like to define the use of a space by the floor covering. Here, as in the 15 Burgoyne Court house, I used the China White Gold Quartz to define the “walking” or “working” areas. That is the kitchen space, the passage from the entry to the patio door, the passage from the garage door to the kitchen and the main hallway to the rear of the house. The seating areas; dining room, living room, bedrooms and office, have the wooden flooring. The angles in the layout of the stone are partly just a design conceit, but they also reflect the natural path, complete with the cutting of corners.

The master windows were one of Justin’s inputs to the design. I had intended, in fact drew it that way, to have the patio door of the master bedroom directly opposite the door to the hallway. Justin wanted to create an uninterrupted view from the hallway to the garden. He suggested that we place the large single piece of glass on that axis and put the patio door to the opposite side. He was correct.

The blue granite bench was a bit of a gift. I use these “floating’ benches fairly often. There is one in the living room of 15 Burgoyne. So, we knew that we would be doing one here, in fact the brackets were installed for it prior to the drywall work. But we weren’t certain what material we would be using for the bench top. When we all went to Marble Unlimited to select stone for the kitchen counters Justin, Jennifer & Maggi fell in love with this piece of blue stone. We decided that we would use it in some decorative way in the master bath. I eventually designed it into the elevations with the intent that it would be on the wall above the tub with a 2nd piece on the wall of the bedroom between the door and window into the bathroom. Once Justin decided to slide the barn door to that side instead of towards the hallway we decided to place the second piece over the toilet where it would be visible simultaneously with the tub piece. While discussing this layout we realized that the obvious use for the balance of the slab was the bench. Now, standing beside the bed you can see all three pieces at once.

The master suite door, master bath door, and vanity are of fumed Eucalyptus. This is a process where the veneers are exposed to ammonia until they acquire the desired darkness. Too long exposure will turn them black. There is no dye or stain used in this process. 

The master suite door, master bath door, and vanity are of fumed Eucalyptus. This is a process where the veneers are exposed to ammonia until they acquire the desired darkness. Too long exposure will turn them black. There is no dye or stain used in this process. It is just the wood with a chemical reaction to the ammonia.

My intent with the hallway was to create a path of pure whiteness which is only anchored by the stone beneath your feet. Therefore the ceilings, beams, walls, doors, trim, etc. are all painted icicle white as are the ceiling, beams, eaves and fascia of the roofs throughout the house. This gives them an apparent lightness which is enhanced by the thinness of an Eichler roof. As you proceed down the hallway the views through the garden window at one end or through the entry and kitchen to the dining room at the other end are visually lengthened.

The office was a design which I have been playing with over the years on several projects. At 10 Burgoyne I have a room with that floating roof. It is built of wood with large beams but it does grant the constant daylight effect by being above the adjacent roofs so that the light can always penetrate and it does have the open corners so that the support is set to the center of the space and the wings of the roof float. I used the same design on the atrium roof at a house on New Brunswick in 2010. At French Creek I was trying for the ultimate expression of this effect. To lift a roof with a minimum of visible support. In this case the effect is achieved by using a steel framework concealed within the roof structure and the top of the walls. This allows for narrow profile supports which appear more like window mullions than structural members. The use of frameless corner windows increases the effect. Despite the appearance of lightness that is one of the structurally strongest, most integrated spaces I have ever built. All four of those walls are shear walls. 

The reason behind all of this playing with structure and mass is to reach for the Eichler ideal of blurring the line between interior and exterior space. In the detached roof and, truly, floor to ceiling glass used at the main living space, the fully glazed final ten feet of the hallway, and the office space open to sky and garden this was the intent of my effort.

There is a great deal of thought put into the practical aspects of the house as well. Since we had the entire house torn open we elected to completely re-do the heating system. There is a very sophisticated multipurpose water heater located in the garage. It is a 96% efficient unit. It heats the domestic water and separately heats the radiant system. There is also a solar panel on the roof above the master bedroom which contributes to the efficiency of the system. All of this is controlled by a computerized master zone control panel. There are several ways to re work a radiant system. The most common is to lay down the pipe, or pex tubing, on the surface of the slab and then pour a thin layer of gypcrete over the tubes. The problem with this approach is that, just like the original systems, you have to heat the mass of the concrete slab before you radiate any heat upwards. What we used here is a layer of thermalboard. These are 3/4” thick insulating panels, pre-grooved to accept the pex, or similar, tubing. The surface of the panels is a foil layer which spreads the heat laterally and upwards. The obvious advantage here is that more heat is going into the living space and less to the slab. The other not quite as obvious advantage, the change rate is radically altered. Where it used to take days to increase the heat in a given space, this system changes the heat in 15 minutes. So now you can really “Zone” a house.

At 40 French Creek we have 6 zones. The main living space is zone 1. Each bedroom is a zone. The 2 bathrooms are a zone, the office is a zone. Each zone has one or more loops. There is a limit to the efficiency of loop as it gets longer. So, by putting 5 loops in the main living area none of them run out of heat before getting back to the return line. Each zone has a separate thermostat. The thermostat is wired back to the master zone control valve which will signal the actuator at the manifold, in the hall closet, to increase or decrease the flow of the loops in that zone. So, if the office, which has a lot of glass and 3 exterior walls, is chilly, you can raise the heat in that space without effecting the rest of the house. This is one of those triumphs of technology put the use of the homeowner.

We also ran new pvc chases through the slab to get the electrical to new pull boxes in the back of the house. This avoids the all too common problem with Eichlers of having the old steel conduit rusting out in the slab and the wires dropping into the wet gravel below the concrete where they rot and short out. Again, since we had it all torn open it was the correct time to upgrade the system.

I enjoy a certain amount of whimsey in design so I like to play with the visual effect created by certain tricks. That is why I have detached the entry door from the house by use of glass and the extension of the paneling through the wall. Particularly at night this has the effect of making the visitor take a second look to determine just what is going on. The same effect of disassociating the back door at the end of the hallway from any wall makes it appear to be floating in space. I have to admit that I got the idea from the scene in Monsters Inc. where they are clamping the doors into a frame with no walls attached.

The stereo cabinet is a similar visual game. I wanted something to call attention to the mass of the dark paneled wall behind it, but also, like a Kay Nielsen birch tree set against the dark forest behind, to act as a foil for the richness of the wall. I see the legless cabinet, unattached to the wall behind it, with a floating top, as having motion. It seems to me to be either coming together, or coming apart. The use of the natural edge on the maple top is both an homage to George Nakashima and a deliberate break from the strict rectilinearity of the forms in the rest of the design vocabulary.

As I have demonstrated here, I can talk endlessly about this design. However, it is really only understandable by experiencing the spaces.

– Nicholas


Below are a few behind-the-scene photos of the project: