Project Spotlight

Michael Hennessey Architecture Offers Up a Contemporary Vision of the Iconic San Francisco Townhouse

Twin Peaks house optimizes the city's Northern California light and distinctive rolling landscape while reinventing the single-family home.

With its iconic colorful townhouses in Victorian and Edwardian styles, the architectural legacy of San Francisco has cemented itself as one of the enduring images of American life. Stacked side-by-side like sardines in a tin can and unfurling up and down the hilly slopes of the City by the Bay, perhaps no urban metropolis in the country is so closely identified by its residential makeup, one that has maintained its look and feel for more than a century.

So what would the contemporary version of this design language look like? That’s what local firm Michael Hennessey Architecture was tasked with solving. The masters of light and views set out to offer up a new vision of the San Francisco vernacular with the Twin Peaks house. With the city’s sprawling landscape at its disposal, the studio got to work interpreting the classic townhouse for the modern age with a stellar refurb of a dilapidated structure. Inspired by the Mies van der Rohe masterpiece Farnsworth House, in Plano, Illinois, Twin Peaks is a joyful representation of what the future may hold with its abundance of light-filtering glass, intentional moments, picturesque vantage points, and reorientation of a single-family home into a multi-unit building.  

Below, we take a closer look at the project through the eyes of MHA principal Michael Hennessey.

Project Description: Located on the east side of the Twin Peaks neighborhood of San Francisco, this three-unit residential building is created from an ordinary single-family home that was suffering from years of neglect. Two stories were added above the existing building and a double-height rear addition was included behind the garage, creating a five-story structure that enjoys sweeping views of downtown due to its downslope orientation. The project appeals to different needs as it contains homes of varying sizes with a one-bedroom lower unit, a two-bedroom middle unit, and a three-bedroom upper unit. Twin Peaks brings much-needed density to a city starved for more housing options and is located on a public transportation line allowing for convenient access to the rest of the city.

Project Inspiration: The client lived next door to this property for years and decided to purchase the neglected residence in an attempt to capture the striking views from the site in a bold way. Maximizing glass at both the front and rear of the building was a stated goal. Although located in a rural setting, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House proved to be an appropriate inspiration and reference for this urban project due to the masterful use of glazing to frame a landscape. The Architect embraced this challenge of framing the landscape in a purposeful way from each space. For example, orienting a bed at the top level to capture a layered view of a hill dotted with houses in the foreground, against the downtown skyline beyond. Or, giving thought to working at a kitchen island that overlooks a sunken living room while simultaneously taking in a framed distant view.

Blueprint: The lower unit is defined by a double-height volume that opens onto a private and minimal rear yard. The middle unit contains a central walnut bench/bookcase that serves to mediate the floor level change between the kitchen and the sunken living room. The upper unit has a master suite with an abundance of glazing that is perched above the living room and kitchen. Each residence is accessed via an exterior stair designed with perforated steel to bring daylight down to the building’s entrance.

The front elevation is a composition of steel frames with aluminum windows and integrally colored cement plaster infilling the steel framework. Cement plaster is used at the second-floor bedrooms to provide privacy from the street below, whereas an abundance of glass is used at the third level as privacy becomes less of a concern. The vertical orientation of the windows and steel elements draws the eye up to a horizontal steel brow, terminating the top of the composition. A pivot gate with wood slats brings visual warmth to the front elevation, creating an inviting moment when entering the building.

Takeaways/Uniqueness: While different in size, each unit would be of the same quality, design, and finish to enhance a sense of community among the residents. It is quite unique within multi-family residential projects to maintain a level of quality and detailing that one would find in a single-family residence. Sheer curtains, walnut wood veneer, and travertine floor tiles are the primary materials used to create consistency throughout the building, adding layers of warmth as a counterpoint to the overall design.

Each space’s orientation to the sun creates special moments at different times of the day, whether it’s waking up to dramatic morning light on the east side of the building or watching the sun dip behind Sutro Tower from an office space on the west side. The play of natural light against both of the perforated stairs creates unique visual experiences during the afternoon. The perforations at the interior stair produce a graphical shadow effect on the adjacent wall and floor, bringing a magical texture into the upper unit’s kitchen. The vertical steel rods at the exterior stair guardrail create a fun play of shadows against the cement plaster at the shared circulation space.

Challenges:  Renovating a single-family residence into a larger three-unit building comes with an array of design challenges such as weaving purposeful spaces and a new structural system into an existing set of constraints. Making sure that finishes are aligned properly when building against less than perfect wood framing from the original structure is a testament to the wonderful craftspeople that worked on the project. In addition, resolving the vertical circulation for a multi-family building on a tight urban lot lead to the idea of an exterior entry and stair volume that frames the sky above. Finally, designing the overall building to respectfully fit into the surrounding context was both a challenge and an opportunity to create a uniquely San Francisco modern building.

The List’s Project Spotlight column features unparalleled projects created by our forward-thinking List members. By going straight to the source—and having the designers demystify the methods behind their designs—we hope to enlighten and inspire our creative audience to further push the boundaries of what is possible in the realm of design. 

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