Hillside House

The Intersection of High Design & High Sustainability

by Heather Hebert, SB Architects

From Architectural West Nov/Dec ’10

Five years ago, when architect Scott Lee and his wife Tracy, were house hunting in Marin County, Calif., he spotted a for-sale sign on a steep slip of land in Mill Valley.  Lee was immediately drawn to the lot, but the real estate agent showing the one-tenth acre parcel commented that it was unbuildable.  Lee, the president of San Francisco-based SB Architects, an international firm known for the design of site-sensitive resort and mixed-use projects around the world, took it as a challenge and the idea for Hillside House was born.  “The more people told me I shouldn’t do it, the more I wanted to,” he said. 

Lee partnered with green builder Mike McDonald of McDonald Construction & Development, Oakland, Calif.  The two went to extra lengths to create a home that was both green and gorgeous.  While nothing about the project was easy or fast, the results were breathtaking.  Together the two envisioned pushing the boundaries by designing and building a stunning contemporary home while using the most authentically sustainable building materials on the market.

Hillside House represents a unique approach to the design process.  In a truly collaborative effort, a design team, product manufacturers, local craftsmen, and community members worked hand-in-hand to bring this first-of-its-kind LEED Platinum project to Marin County. 

“When I met Mike McDonald, there was an instant understanding that, between us, we could work together to move the process of designing and developing a sustainable home to a new level.  By pulling together an outstanding group of partner companies, we were able to push the envelope of what is possible,” declares Lee.  “Most of the sustainable solutions were carefully planned, but some came about simply through the synergies created by bringing all of these innovative designers, suppliers, and artisans together with a singular mission.”

Carefully carved into a steep hillside, and set amid towering oaks, the house is, first and foremost, a reflection of the site.  The four-story home steps back into the hillside and works its way around the trees.  Its design was driven by the views and defined by the intimate relationship between indoors and out.  Natural elements, such as Western red cedar siding, were selected for their natural warm feeling and sustainability, seamlessly blending the exterior and interior.  “An important part of minimizing the impact of a project involves selecting natural building materials, like Western red cedar, that minimize the carbon footprint from manufacture to end use,” McDonald said.

Every inch of the custom home has been designed to maximize its sustainability, in direct response to the site, trees, and views.  As a result, Hillside House lives far larger than its actual footprint with an environmental impact that is far less.  Private and living zones are set on their own floors.  Every space has its own private terrace and every window embraces views of the surrounding trees or the San Francisco skyline in the distance.  A covered terrace acts as an indoor/outdoor family room off the main living level, visually and psychologically expanding the space.  “An authentic response deeply rooted in the site is absolutely the first step in sustainable design for any type of project,” says Lee.

Built on an infill lot close to town, the location makes the best use of existing space set aside for development.  The house itself is designed to maximize solar orientation for the photovoltaic panels, as well as passive heating and cooling to take advantage of site orientation.  The surrounding hillside provides the lower floors with natural insulation, solar power supplies electricity and hot water, and radiant floor heating and an innovative air re-circulation system condition the interior.  A whole-house automation and lighting system, LED lighting, Fleetwood super-insulated doors and windows, and indigenous, drought-tolerant landscaping conserve resources.

Local availability, recycled content, and sustainable production drove the selection of each material, appliance, and detail – including Western red cedar siding, Energy Star-rated appliances, low-flow plumbing fixtures, zero-VOC paints, high-recycled content interior concrete, sustainably produced stone veneers, sustainably harvested floors and cabinetry, reclaimed timber, and recycled metal roofing.  Because of its vertical design and blending of indoor and outdoor spaces, the three-bedroom home looks bigger than it is.  It has 2,113 sq.ft. of interior space plus a garage, and more than 1,000 sq.ft. of balconies and decks, including one for yoga.

Hillside House won the LEED Platinum rating earlier this year, the top U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standard.  The house is one of only a handful in Northern California to achieve the designation, and is a statement of what is possible when combining what Lee calls, “high design with high sustainability.”  The first LEED Platinum home in Marin County, Hillside House has become a nationally recognized standard for the design and construction of high-performance green homes.

“Hillside House represents what is possible in sustainable design and construction with careful materials, site, and partnership considerations,” Lee said.  “With new design construction techniques that epitomize sustainability while minimizing carbon imprint upfront, we hope to show people designs of the future that are possible today.  Hillside House will serve as an example of designing beyond green for generations to come.”

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