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Publication Date: 2018-11-09

Design Insights

Architect Cass Calder Smith on Creating a Standout House

Acclaimed San Francisco architect Cass Calder Smith of CCS Architecture has created sleek but welcoming homes on both coasts, ranging in scale from cottage-cozy to grand and sweeping. Here, he talks about his ideal client and the factors that transform an ordinary commission into an extraordinary house.

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Photo: Paul Dyer

What qualities do you feel are necessary for a new project to become a truly standout design?

For design excellence, I feel that range is important–meaning there should be creative ideas that range from the initial large conceptual plan down to the details. A project needs to really express something about the owners, so that its design is personalized and bespoke, which can only happen through a close collaboration. I don’t think it’s important for a house to be lavish or overly expensive. Rather, a house needs to be sensible, and most of the time what makes it special is keeping it simple and clear. Space should be well-proportioned, natural light should be carefully balanced, there should be a notable connection to the outdoors, and the details need to be masterful.

Photo: Paul Dyer

What makes a client a truly great collaborator? Can you usually tell right away if a client has the potential to become a great one?

Probably what's most important is that they believe that design really matters in everything, and that excellence is achieved through the process of design with a skilled and talented team. It's important that the client sees quality design as having and adding value. I find that the less a project is rushed, the stronger the collaboration, and the better the results. Clients collaborate better and appreciate the process more if they feel they are being heard. It's great if they come to the table with clarity about their aspirations and requirements, yet also with an open mind to the new and unexpected. I like becoming friends with clients so it’s an alliance. Most of them like this, too.

Photo: Matthew Millman

As the functions of rooms have changed and evolved, what do you think are the essential elements a great new house needs?

It really depends on who will live there, and their aspirational program. A house for a family is very different than one for a single person or a couple. Certainly the "open plan" is more the norm than ever, but it’s also nice when a house has some zones, which I would label social/public and then specific/private. We all know that most people like to be together, especially around the kitchen, but also have the option to retreat somewhere else, and then have a private place to sleep. People are working from home more and more, so a workspace that’s designed to really spend quality time in has become more important. In more general terms, I see people’s homes becoming increasingly aligned with their lifestyles, which are more casual than ever. When we design or see a house like this, we call it "casual modernism."

Photo: Joe Fletcher

The Palo Alto House: Here we created a large house for a family of five as their primary home. It looks pretty bold when seen from the street, with its length and big cantilever. Its connected to the site with a U-shaped form that establishes a comforting courtyard that all sides open up to. There is a breezeway, which I have done frequently. The exterior materials are walls of rammed earth made from the site soil and sustainably certified wood siding. The interior is a balance of authentic materials, natural light, and is zoned into family common areas of varying degrees of separateness. There is a distinct wing on the second floor for sleeping. As with many of my other houses, a large solar system on the roof generates most of the houses’ electricity. It’s been nice to see the house perform as intended, as the family's kids have grown up.

An outdoor dining area at the Palo Alto house. Photo: Joe Fletcher

When siting a new house, what are the most important considerations—flow of light, changes in terrain, maximizing outdoor areas?

Everything. How a house is sited is often the most important design move in the process. Two things mainly establish which way the house will face and its shape: the views and the solar orientation. It’s nice when these are in sync, and I like to aim houses south, and if that it not possible, then east. How the house works with the topography is especially important on sloped sites, and that can be the most difficult element to resolve, since this drives so many aspects of the project, from excavation costs to the success of the indoor-outdoor connection. When siting a house, you also need to consider all the other site developments that will happen around it, such as pools, hardscape, soft-scape, garden, and trees—to name a few.   

A garden off the guest suite at the Palo Alto house. Photo: Joe Fletcher

Is it easier to work on a large site, and on a larger scale, or does having a smaller, more confined space—even a smaller budget—provoke creativity? 

Generally, larger is easier since there are often fewer constraints. However if a client has a long list of site requirements then it can get pretty complicated. Smaller sites often require some very clever problem solving, just to fit the house on them. It’s a little like cracking the code. To succeed, you usually have to consider many options and then evaluate which is the best solution.   

The entry of the Palo Alto house. Photo: Joe Fletcher

What are some of your favorite materials for a new house?

Overall, I like authentic materials. I also like to create a balance of materials, such as warm versus cold and light versus dark. And you don’t want too much of any one material. Since many of the houses I design have lots of glass for light and views, I like to create a warm counterpoint with wood–especially within the interiors. I use wood a lot on both exteriors and interiors, but in the most modern ways I can, often on ceilings and walls. I do also like light–toned plaster and Sheetrock to enhance natural light and shadow play, as well as exposed concrete and some steel. Lately, I have been using mirrors and polished stainless steel on exteriors, which makes the building into a camera taking snap shots of its surroundings, and it can also have the effect of making walls seem to disappear. Sustainable materials are increasingly important. Some examples we often use are reclaimed or FSC certified wood, rammed earth, and steel with a high recycled ratio.

Photo: Colin Miller

The Springs House: This house is in the Hamptons, but not at the beach. It’s actually a custom prefab. Here, I find the way we sited the house on its two wooded acres and what we did with the rest of the site exemplary. We aimed the house south and kept it simple by clearing the central area of the site to open it up to natural light. Then we placed the pool and pool house on axis with the house at a strategic distance, so the setting feels spacious. The form of the house is modern but not extreme, and the inside has the hallmarks of an indoor-outdoor connection, natural light, spacious rooms, and a balance of materials. It feels very casual, as well, which is good for a Hamptons summer house.

The living area of the Springs house. Photo: Colin Miller

How important is to incorporate the latest technology into a home?

Technology within a home should truly be what the owner wants and is comfortable with. The "smart home" can be great for ease of use, and for energy conservation, yet some clients want only a state-of-the-art audio-visual system. It’s easy to get caught up in the bells and whistles and endless options, so tempering this is wise. In relation to energy usage, we try to always use heating and cooling that incorporates the latest technology, and we also deploy solar panels frequently.

A view of the Springs House from the pool house. Photo: Colin Miller

How important do you feel the connection between indoors and out is in creating a successful design? Are clients more aware of the outdoors now, and more willing to invest in it?

It’s paramount, both physically and also visually. It’s a question of degree and of course depends on the site and opportunities. Yes, clients want nature, fresh air, and to be in touch with their environment. For kids, the yard is essential and needs to be easily accessed. In cities, terraces and roof decks really enhance and add value to a home. I think being able to be inside and out when at your weekend retreat is fundamental. We often deploy large glass sliding or swinging doors that serve as great windows when closed, and when open really dissolve the barrier to the outside.

An outdoor seating area with fire pit at the Springs House. Photo: Colin Miller

How much longer does it take, and how much more expensive is it, to create a truly outstanding house, as opposed to say an average project (if there is such a thing)?

Time and cost are mostly driven by the scale of a house, and where it is built. A number of homes have the opportunity to become truly standout if their owners are very involved in the process. These tend to get pretty expensive. I usually create more medium-scaled homes, which involve sensible luxury and average-cost materials. In the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, or the Hamptons, the cost of construction is very high, no matter what. We used to be able to design a modest, modern California-style house of about 5,000 square feet for $500 per square foot, and it could be built in about a year, once all the permits were in hand. Today that number is $800 to $1000 per square foot, and it’s taking longer to build due to everybody being so busy. I tend to find that clients want their primary homes to be more of a custom fit, and are more willing to pay for a personally tailored design, while for their second homes they have lower expectations, and therefore expect lower costs.

Photo: Paul Dyer

The Seadrift House: This is a modest house of about 2,000 square feet, but through a lot of design tenacity and ingenuity, it emerged with a lot of the essentials: views, a strong indoor-outdoor connection, natural light, tall ceilings, three bedrooms, a large social area encompassing kitchen, dining, and living, with a retreat area which serves as the family room. There is also a pretty good balance of materials, which include wood, glass, concrete, and soft white walls. Like many of our houses, it has a solar energy system, highly efficient HVAC systems, and most of the time the house is net-zero in energy use. I would call this house a classic example of what we do. Perhaps what is most exemplary about this house is that the owners truly love it.

A breezeway at the Seadrift House. Photo: Paul Dyer
The dining area, overlooking the water. Photo: Paul Dyer

Have you ever had a client challenge you so that the final result proved to be better than expected? Has the reverse ever been true?

Many times, and it almost always improves the design when this happens. Sometimes the same thing happens when city or town planning departments challenge the design—if you can believe that. It’s why we learn to listen, and have come to realize that some debate while moving through design process is essential. It’s a critical process like many others. However, if a challenge is posed at every turn, then I’m not sure that’s a catalyst for better.

The street facade of the Seadrift House. Photo: Paul Dyer
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