Hovering house: Studio Vara's family home appears to rise from its Palo Alto plot

Studio Vara Palo Alto
This new home for a family of five in Palo Alto is the brainchild of San Francisco based Studio Vara.
(Image credit: Matthew Millman)

Creating a generous home for a 5-strong family in a relatively compact site, full of constraints – such as zoning laws and neighbour's rights of light – is a considerable challenge for any architect. However, it is one that Studio Vara took in their stride, when tasked with a similar project by a young Palo Alto couple. 

The San Francisco based architects were ‘challenged to squeeze in a generous kitchen, living room, six bedrooms and seven bathrooms, plus a family room, office, gym and wine room into this tight envelope', explains the team, headed by Maura Fernandez Abernethy and Christopher Roach. Situated in a prominent corner plot of the Old Palo Alto neighbourhood, the residence is placed on the site's outermost corner, in order to preserve the rear yard for breathing space and garden. 

The entrance of the house

(Image credit: Matthew Millman)

The ground level centres on a small, open air courtyard. This move, not only helps flood the interior with light, enhancing the open plan's airy feel, but also helps to blur the boundaries between inside and outside, bringing a little bit of the lush garden foliage in. Around it flows a sequence of kitchen, dining, and living areas.

A slender, transparent staircase leads up to the first floor, where bedrooms and bathrooms are located, in a more conventional series of independent spaces. A basement, generously lit by light wells and openings, completes the living spaces, hosting a family room, an exercise room and a guest bedroom. Combining comfort and lightness, the architects focused on finding the right balance between open and closed areas, different materials and volumetric compositions throughout the design.

‘From the street, the house appears to hover lightly above the ground, the effect of slightly elevating the first floor above grade and recessing the basement below decks and wing walls around the perimeter,' says the team. ‘Overall, the exterior reads as a composition of stacked volumes, an effect that is emphasized by giving each level a unique primary material: board-formed concrete for the basement, cedar and larch siding for the main level, and dark panelised zinc for the top floor.'

Side angle view of the Studio Vara Palo Alto house

(Image credit: Matthew Millman)

Studio Vara Palo Alto exterior

(Image credit: Matthew Millman)

Studio Vara Palo Alto sitting room

(Image credit: Matthew Millman)

Studio Vara Palo Alto lounge

(Image credit: Matthew Millman)

Studio Vara Palo Alto living space

(Image credit: Matthew Millman)

Studio Vara Palo Alto kitchen

(Image credit: Matthew Millman)

Studio Vara Palo Alto view to bedroom

(Image credit: Matthew Millman)

Studio Vara Palo Alto view from garden

(Image credit: Matthew Millman)

Studio Vara Palo Alto facade

(Image credit: Matthew Millman)

Studio Vara Palo Alto ground floor

(Image credit: Matthew Millman)

Studio Vara Palo Alto staircase

(Image credit: Matthew Millman)

Studio Vara Palo Alto bedroom

(Image credit: Matthew Millman)

INFORMATION

studiovara.com

Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture Editor at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018) and Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020).