Architect Cary Bernstein had worked on a small interior renovation of this San Francisco cottage when it’s owner first purchased the property in 2001. Since then the owner had married and had three children, and the family needed more space.


The lot is 75 feet wide — about three times the width of typical city lots, says contractor Jim McAuliffe, of Johnstone-McAuliffe Construction, in Palo Alto, Calif. But the homeowners wanted to preserve the open space around the house, so they opted for an upper-story addition.

Despite its modernity, Bernstein’s design melds well with the original 1902 cottage. McAuliffe says that he works mostly with architects specializing in modern design, adding that it’s tougher to build in a contemporary style because “you’re not hiding anything with trim.”

Gaining Approval

Cary Bernstein says that the city of San Francisco considers any building over 50 years old to be a potential historical resource. “We were able to show, however, that the original building had been modified so much over time that it was no longer a pure representation of any particular architecture,” she says, so the building earned an exemption from historical obligations.

Bernstein applied for a variance because the rear yard was shorter than most, and though it pre-dates the city’s planning code that requires preserving rear yards, it is considered “legal non-compliant.” “By promising to stay on top of the existing footprint,” she says, “we made a public commitment to not reduce the amount of open space around the house.”

During the city-required pre-notification meeting for homeowners in the immediate area to review the design, one neighbor objected to the enclosed upper story sunroom because it would partially block his view. Bernstein says that although neighbors’ “don’t have a right to a view, that’s the most common objection.” This neighbor was a developer and was savvy about his approach. He brought in an architect to show Bernstein alternative acceptable plans. After some back and forth, they reached a compromise, creating an open deck that maintains the neighbor’s view.

The pre-notification meetings are hosted by the homeowners, and though architects are not required to attend, many clients prefer to have the architect explain the design to the neighbors. “Not everyone has the same vocabulary,” Bernstein says. “You should do that anyway, just to be polite,” she adds.

Bernstein says that after this initial close-in neighbor review, the planning department sends out a notification to owners of homes within a 100-foot radius if there is a variance, and a 300-foot radius if there is no variance, as well as community groups. They have 30 days to respond before the site permit is approved.

High Lights

The house sits below street level, much of it being shaded in the afternoon, so the home­owners wanted to capture as much light as possible with west-facing windows.

The large two-story window wall, open interiors, and contemporary materials have a modern style that contrasts with the home’s traditional roots and the first remodel.

Bernstein says that during the time between the home’s two upgrades, “acceptance of modernism really rose” due to the influence of magazines such as Dwell and stores like Design Within Reach. This culture shift, combined with his wife’s influence, made the homeowner more open to modern design than he had been in the past.

The floor-to-ceiling windows add a modernity to the older cottage, Bernstein says, as does the narrow horizontal framing between the first- and second-story units. However, the architect was careful not to ignore the home’s traditional details. “It’s about the layers of time,” she says. “It really is like a certain kind of archealogy when dealing with a new structure and layering on a new dialogue.”

Design Meets Function

Though Bernstein originally sketched the trellis purely as a design element, it now serves as a structural support as well. “I thought that visually, as the structure became more vertical, I needed to balance that with a horizontal element,” Bernstein says. However, engineer Jason Campbell, of JEC Structural Consulting, in Oakland, Calif., told Bernstein that with the upper-story addition, the structure needed lateral stability. He was able to redesign the trellis — spanning the house from the entryway to a shed in the yard — to provide that stability.

Though the homeowner wasn’t sure about the trellis when it was a design element, he changed his mind when the engineer said it offered a cost-effective structural support solution.

Campbell specified the length of the trellis’ steel side members, and Bernstein designed the cross members and steel lattice. The trellis offers a dual design and structural solution. “We got a lot of mileage out of it,” Bernstein says.

The trellis was manufactured by a steel shop and delivered to the site in segments that were welded together on site.

Stack Effect

When doing the 2001 lower-floor renovation, Bernstein and the homeowner set the stage for a third-floor addition by replacing the existing spiral stair with straight stairs, anticipating that new stairs would be stacked above these. Bernstein specified white metal railings with spindles that disappear into the floor. “The bottom plate is concealed — a clean detail that walks a nice line between cottage and modern,” she says.

McAuliffe’s crew created a template of the stair rails, which were made by a metal fabricator with the spindles welded to the top rail. They placed the rail, marked holes in the floor, then drilled into the floor and set the spindles in the holes, securing them with epoxy.