El Cerrito

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The owner bought the house at Gelston Pl, El Cerrito, hoping it would become a dream house for the growing family. The first home the family had purchased was in Albany and with the kids’ education in mind. Living in Albany proved to be a smart choice since the kids benefited from Albany’s excellent public schools. However, because of the elevated median price of homes in Albany and the small number of available houses, the family’s options were limited at the time. Nevertheless, Albany house was a practical choice for the family while the kids were growing up, and their schooling was the primary concern for the family.

The family’s new house at Gelston Place was located in El Cerrito hills, at the end of an uphill cul-de-sac, with a beautiful and stunning view of the bay. A contractor built the original house with little regard for design, and even paid much less attention to the site’s geometry. The irregularity of the lot combined with the rigid building-setbacks and the sloped topography presented a challenging building envelope.

The garage’s location in the Gelston Place house had not only consumed a large footprint in the main floor at the prime residential zone, but it also had created a challenging and uneasy access from the street. Since the building envelope was built up to the allowable building setbacks on all sides and even crept into the legal setback at some areas, the option of adding onto the existing building envelope was not available nor practical. Any design idea for enlarging the existing living space had to be non-conventional and include an out of the box concept.

The existing kitchen’s location had greatly diminished the size and flexibility of the living/great room. Furthermore, the bedrooms were completely cut off from the rest of the house by an obscure and dark hallway and the stairs. In short, the traffic and circulation in the place were abysmal and impractical.


Our design concept began by removing the existing garage and converting it into a living space. We fractured the rigidity of the current layout on the main floor, allowing us to reconfigure the architectural spaces with ease, which in turn enhanced the traffic and circulation in the house/living area.

Since the house was on a sloped and elevated site, our next move was to excavate the crawl space below the living room, increase its height to the standard, and use that space to create a new and easy accessible garage. The new location was an ideal one for a garage as it offered an almost level driveway to the street. To maximize the garage’s use, we designed an interior stairway from the garage’s east end into the home’s heart above. As a result, after parking the car in the garage, one would be directed to the stairway+light-well, which would lead to the kitchen, the living room, and the bedrooms.

By placing the stairway+light-well at the center of the house and opening it to the sky via the skylights, we erected a vertical corridor and shaped a center of gravity for the surrounding living spaces. Furthermore, placing the kitchen at the old garage’s location, adjacent to the previous driveway, provided a unique opportunity for an outdoor eating space to be created and enjoyed by the entire family.

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