Earth, Wind, and Fire

Earth, Wind, and Fire


Vaulted ceilings, views, and portals to the outdoors, and sliding glass doors connect the home to nature.

A 1950s-era home returns to its natural roots.

The verdant neighborhoods and spacious homes surrounding the Claremont Hotel reflect the gamut of Oakland and Berkeley’s architectural diversity. Nestled among the tree-lined streets and manicured hedges are representatives from every epoch—from classical, contemporary, to mid-century—sometimes all in the same house.

On a quiet cul de sac, with peekaboo views of the venerable hotel, a 1950s-era mid-century modern home had been remodeled beyond recognition into a mélange of artless architecture and mismatched materials.

“It’s hard to describe the condition of the house at the beginning of the project,” said Charles Debbas, principal at Berkeley’s Debbas Architecture. “It was a mixture of ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s design with little attention to stylistic cohesion.

“The house was surrounded by poured concrete, and had virtually no nails,” said Debbas. “It was literally stapled together.”

“My starting point when designing a home is from the exterior in. This approach allows me to maximize natural lighting and ventilation, as well as a home’s passive solar exposure,” said Debbas. “A design starts from a structure’s relationship to its surroundings. A lot of architects have forgotten to incorporate these elements into their designs.”At just over 4,000 square feet, it was a rambling home that Debbas wanted to return to its original splendor while simultaneously bringing it into the 21st century through the use of modern, sustainable materials plus the common sense tenets of good architecture.

Outdoor views and portals from nearly every room provide the home’s occupants with an ever-present connection to nature. Vaulted ceilings and expanses of windows, some in unexpected locations, and a folding glass wall in the great room, create a seamless transition between the dwelling’s indoor and outdoor environments.

“We completely refreshed the exterior, and gutted the interior,” said Debbas. “However, we didn’t change the location of the rooms. Instead, we opened everything up and reintroduced the dialogue between the interiors and exteriors that mid-centuries do so well.”

Debbas’ choice of minimalist finishes in muted natural tones further ground the home to its earthy surrounds. Woven twig light fixtures, textured porcelains, and dark wood walls, contrasted by gleaming, gold-hued hardwood floors and built-in furnishings, create a harmonious visual flow throughout.

“I didn’t want to introduce flashy materials,” said Debbas. “I wanted the house to speak for itself.”

With its beamed and vaulted ceiling, the great room truly lives up to its name. Divided into visual quarters, each quadrant of the expanse complements the function of its adjacent space. A hypermodern kitchen and its dining room counterpart are separated from the home’s living room and entryway by an eye-catching custom credenza. Its unexpected splash of green pays not-so-subtle homage to Mother Nature.

The living room seating area is made cozy by the home’s original repurposed stone fireplace. A small, eye-level-when-seated window inset next to the hearth provides storage for logs and a glimpse of the outdoors while enjoying a roaring fire.

Open the walls, and you’re there.


Published online on May 2, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

Faces of the East Bay