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Modernizing a Historic Eichler Home

Garcia Studio Architects

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Project Description

Mid-century modernism generated such mass-market design classics as the Eames plywood chair, the George Nelson clock, and the Arco floor lamp. But in the category of mid-century production housing, the work of Joseph Eichler stands alone. From the 1950s into the 1970s his company, Eichler Homes, built more than 11,000 moderately priced houses — mostly in northern California — that remain icons of California modernism.

Today, Eichlers are much sought after as platforms for 21st-century makeovers, and this example, in Walnut Creek, Calif., may set the high-water mark for its breed. Upgraded in layout, function, and finish, it retains its breezy 1960s spirit while providing a living experience unsurpassed by the highest of high-end custom homes.

Good Vibrations

Eichler houses were ahead of their time in space planning and style, but original Eichler homes like this one don’t come close to meeting current seismic codes. “There weren’t many shear walls around the house,” notes architect Lourdes Garcia of San Francisco–based Garcia Studio Architects, “which in California is kind of a big deal.” But she and builder Stephen Steele, of Novato, Calif.–based S&Z Construction, had learned from previous Eichler remodels how to bring the light post-and-beam structures up to code without compromising the openness that is their raison d’être. Steele stripped the exterior walls, bolted them to the slab foundation with seismic hold-downs, and sheathed both sides with ½-inch plywood to resist shear forces.

Following typical Eichler practice, the roof’s widely spaced beams supported a layer of 3-by-6 tongue-and-groove structural decking. Steele reinforced critical beam spans with flitch plates, secured beam connections with steel straps, and sheathed the roof deck with ½-inch plywood. Now, he says, “[each roof plane] is a flat shear wall. The plywood ties it all together and keeps it from moving.”

Because so much of the building’s structure is open to view, Garcia says, “we worked with what we had. And what we introduced, we exposed.” Rather than hide the steel straps and plates, she says, “we kind of celebrated all these elements.” The board-formed concrete shear wall that runs from the entry through the atrium and living area underscores the theme. “We celebrated it by pouring it in concrete and having it wrap from the entrance through the living space.”

Climate Control

Eichler Homes’ heyday coincided with a golden age of cheap energy, so it’s no surprise that this house needed significant attention to meet California’s current Title 24 energy efficiency standards. But with smart applications of current technology, Garcia and Steele vastly improved the building’s energy performance while strengthening its connection with the outdoors.

Garcia specified new double-glazed units for every opening. Steele added a 3-to-5-inch layer of rigid foam to the uninsulated roof deck, slightly altering its trademark knife-edge profile but leaving the decking exposed in most of the living spaces. Garcia says, “[The roof] is kind of this light ‘hat’ on the house, and that’s really beautiful. So we kept every room exposed to the tongue-and-groove unless we had to soffit down for mechanical.” Recycled-denim insulation fills the exterior walls.

A roof-mounted photovoltaic array feeds the new in-floor electric radiant heating system. But in this climate, Steele says, cooling is the crucial issue, “and on a very hot day in Walnut Creek, the house is very comfortable.” A roof-mounted whole-house fan keeps the building cool through most of the summer, while a conventional air conditioning unit provides backup for the hottest days.

To keep the interior uncluttered, Steele ran the ductwork within the insulation layer. “It kind of snakes around on top of the roof,” Garcia says. Except for the custom round registers and narrow return-air slots, “you can barely tell it’s there,” she adds.

Golden State

Rising property values and renewed interest in mid-century modernism give Eichler houses an appeal to contemporary buyers that far outstrips their original mid-market price point. “I think the original Eichlers cost between $8,000 and $12,000,” Garcia says. Now prices routinely top $1.5 million. And like many Eichlerphiles, the owners of this home enthusiastically “restored” their house to a condition that far exceeds its original spec.

Structural steel and advances in window and door technology allowed Garcia and Steele to expand the original home’s openness to the outdoors. Custom walnut and Spanish eucalyptus cabinets grace the kitchen and baths. Steele is especially proud of the painstaking work that made the flush garage door disappear into an unbroken sweep of steel-paneled wall.

Perhaps the project’s most remarkable detail is another disappearing act. In the original house, a fireplace and chimney filled much of the living room’s gable wall. “That was the first thing you saw when you walked in,” Garcia says, “and it had to go away.” To open the view while preserving the element of fire, Garcia replaced the masonry mass with a glass firebox resting on a cantilevered Caeasarstone hearth fitted with a recessed ventless ethanol burner.

Opening Up

A. Blue print courtesy Garcia Studio Architects

B. Like many Eichler houses, this one wraps around an open atrium that puts outdoor living — and a window to the sky — at the center of the floor plan. The architect for the remodel enlarged the glazed openings into the atrium and replaced fixed panes with sliding doors.

A. As she did with other parts of the home, architect Lourdes Garcia reinforced the connection to the outdoors and admitted more natural light by opening up spaces, including the master bath. The overall effect is of abundant light and free-flowing space.

B. In the master bath, the skylight mirrors the shape of the tub, and a large sliding window extends the space to the outdoors.

Like many Eichler houses, this one wraps around an open atrium that puts outdoor living — and a window to the sky — at the center of the floor plan. Architect Lourdes Garcia capitalized on that resource by enlarging the glazed openings into the atrium and replacing fixed panes with sliding doors.

Combing out the nest of interior partitions that had accumulated through the years, Garcia joined the kitchen with the dining and living areas into a bright, airy great room and converted a dark pantry into an indoor/outdoor breakfast area. “We opened up the whole corner at that nook,” Garcia says, “so you can feel like you’re actually eating outside.”

A similar approach at the master bedroom, master bath, and secondary bath yielded larger spaces that open — via sliding doors or large sliding windows — directly to the outdoors.

—Bruce Snider is senior contributing editor at CUSTOM HOME and RESIDENTIAL ARCHITECT, sister publications of REMODELING.


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