Lessons from Living in a House Designed by William Wurster

I was educated as an architect, but most of my best design lessons have been derived from daily life in the built environment.  Perhaps the strongest influence on my aesthetic sense is having lived in a house designed by William Wurster for the last thirty-five years. My admiration for the design of the house grows almost on a daily basis as details of it continue to attract my attention.  Here are a few examples:

View of the house and garden from the southeast looking toward the Bay

Siting is one of the most important factors in residential design.  Our house is located on a property in the Berkeley Hills that is blessed with a panoramic view of the Bay. But the view did not drive Wurster’s design.  He sited the house so that the long elevation of what is essentially a two story, rectilinear box faces east, not west to the Bay view.  This orientation gives all of the interior rooms exposure to a side garden and the morning sun. Selected spaces, the living room/dining room and master bedroom, have direct views to the Bay.  After only a season of living in the house with two sons and dogs, we realized the brilliance of the siting.

We continue to be drawn outdoors for leisure time in the yard, the dramatic vistas, and the eastern exposure.  The kitchen, living room/dining room and three upstairs bedrooms all have extra wide doors that open to the garden or to second floor balconies facing the garden.  The long elevation has minimal exposure to the harsh winds and rains that blow from the Bay. On a sunny morning when we are sitting outside the kitchen at a table on the garden patio, we are reminded how shortsighted it would have been to let the house divide such a beautiful green place into a front yard facing the bay and a back yard facing, well, the back yard.  The house is a primary lesson in what could be called, Architecture is About Buildings and their Context.

The shed roof creates a sense of generous space while providing perfect drainage.

A roof is not just a cover to keep out the weather.  It is a major component of the form of a building and one whose effect can be experienced even from the inside.  Our house is documented as being Wurster’s first use of the shed roof for a residential building.  In addition to simplifying the exterior form of the house while adding a bit of reference to a California farm building, the shed roof allows the interior rooms it covers to be more than little or mid-sized boxes.  The floor to ceiling height of the ground level rooms is approximately nine feet, adding an even more generous sense of space to the open plan layout.  The second floor rooms have a floor to ceiling height at the low side of the roof of approximately six-feet eight inches.  The shed roof allows this height to increase to nine feet or more on the opposite side of the room.

The shed roof is another example of the functional simplicity of Wurster’s design aesthetic.  It provides a very cost effective and simple roofing system.  The framing does not require special bracing given the width of the house; the pitch allows easy drainage; and the finish material can be tar and gravel as on a flat roof.  A shed roof can easily be built to overhang and shelter exterior doorways.  Finally, it has proved much more enduring and alluring to live with over time than the double-pitched version, which requires higher maintenance.  Thus the roof form is critical, both aesthetically and functionally.

10 Responses

  1. adrienne klein says:

    To the author and others knowledgeable of Wurster homes, It’s time for me to conduct some repairs and updates to my Wurster home and I would like referrals for architects and contractors who can help me make some decisions and execute the projects.

  2. Carol Deering says:

    I would say ditto for our house next door! I’m so glad you decided to build this house for your mother-in-law in 1981, on the flat portion of your lot, where Wurster had planned a tennis court. Because you were able to “see” and “live” the positive design aspects of your Wurster, you were successful in designing them into 68 Twain. We too are enjoying those Wurster elements that you write about – without the added maintenance of those extra 40 years! ~Thanks Jay

  3. Kate says:

    We are in the midst of renovating a Wurster home for sale,and it has been tricky to find the right balance between updating and staying true to the original plan for the house. The house has been our family home for over 50 years as I was the third generation to be able to enjoy the true beauty of the home. William Wurster really did an incredible job of blending the indoor and outdoor elements to come toghter seemlessly.I love this home and the clean beautiful lines of it.

  4. Robin Chiang says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful essay on what good architecture can achieve. I am reminded that Wurster practiced what the College of Environmental Design was meant to teach. The relevance of its original mission has not diminished.

  5. Thank you, for commenting!

  6. Mac McGinnis says:

    Very enjoyable, Sally. Certainly, it points up the aspect of time in appreciating architecture — and the personal insights of a sensitive observer add richness to the writing.

  7. Jay- Very thoughtful. What strikes me is that both the designer and the resident are so in sync as to be able to communicate to one another, or others, over such a long and enduring relationship. What a nice goal for an architect to try to achieve. Hope all is well with the family.
    Best, Rob

  8. Dan Gregory says:

    Jay this is excellent and demonstrates Wurster’s remarkable ability to focus on ordinary but essential elements and make them memorable, like the stair and the stair window. You deftly explain some of Wurster’s key concepts, as in your felicitous phrases “functional simplicity” and how “the ground plane is made part of the view.” Bravo. I might want to steal some of this for my Eye On Design blog…

  9. Thank you for the comment!

  10. Wonderful to read your thoughts about living in Wurster’s house, Jay. Thank you!

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