Real Estate

Contemporary tranquility

Home by a creek feels worlds away

It was the sound of the creek flowing near the Midcentury Modern home in Portola Valley that drew Julie Dyson in 2011.

But while the 5,000-plus-square-foot house, with its distinctive double A-frame wings connected in the middle by a one-story space, had plenty of room for the Dyson family of five, the layout was awkward. Also, a barn was smack in the middle of the front yard.

Tim Dyson was concerned that the large house had a very small master bedroom, which was "why the house had difficulty selling," he said.

Also, much of the bedroom wing felt like a basement with its long hallways and low ceilings.

So goal No. 1 was to create a new master suite, No. 2 to increase the headroom on the lower level and No. 3 to redo the pool and landscaping.

"So many things we liked and didn't want to touch, but other (things) needed work. We spent about a year in design," Tim said, noting that his downtown Palo Alto office is near their architect's -- so he could pop in often to discuss new ideas.

Although the kitchen was essentially sound, the Dysons moved the concrete island outside, creating an entertaining space near the pool. The cabinets were refaced and new white quartz countertops added, but they kept the appliances.

"The old island wasn't terribly functional and had little counter space," Tim says. "Now we have acres -- more to tidy up."

They moved the master bedroom, which had occupied the connecting area between the A-frames, into the bedroom wing, freeing up space to create a family room. Upon entering that room, there's a large cube of light on one side (large enough to house this year's Christmas tree, after some masterful rewiring) and a NanaWall of accordion-pleated glass on the other, facing that burbling creek.

"It felt strange having the master bedroom in a fishbowl," Julie recalled of the original placement, but a family room bathed in light suits them just fine.

A floor-to-ceiling bookcase lines one wall, with a metal ladder crafted in Germany reaching the higher shelves.

In the bedroom wing (down seven steps), a guest suite with its own kitchen, bedroom and bathroom was created for extended stays by visiting grandparents. Another full bathroom is adjacent to the door leading to the pool.

Half a flight up are the three children's rooms and two more bathrooms. The small rooms, all with views of nature, incorporate built-in cabinets and shelving.

Half a flight down is the new master bedroom suite, with a NanaWall leading outdoors and a bathroom featuring a solid resin bathtub ("It weighs an absolute ton," Tim said), white double sinks, a wavy wall of white tile, plus dark gray tile on the floor and in the glass-enclosed shower.

Off of the bedroom is a small office.

The landscaping was done in phases; first, the old kidney-shaped pool was replaced with a large rectangular one that could be fitted with a cover. The hot tub, which had been located on a deck under a redwood and overlooking the creek, had to be removed. Today the deck provides another seating area outside where they can continue to enjoy the sound.

Because the house was located so close to the creek, the footprint really could not change.

"We were very constrained with what we could do in terms of required setbacks," architect Carl Hesse said.

But the city did allow them to move (and rebuild) the barn, thus freeing up space for landscaping the entrance to the home.

During the year of construction, the family hunkered down in the public wing, with the three kids sharing the loft space above the kitchen.

Asked if she'd do anything differently, Julie looked around her naturally lit space, listening to that creek, and said it might have been nice to add a fireplace to the family room. Then she just smiled.


Architect: Carl Hesse, square three design studios, Palo Alto, 650-326-3860,

Building contractor: Fred Reynolds, Reynolds Construction, Aptos, 415-385-6239

Concrete: Fu-tung Cheng, Cheng Design, Berkeley, 510-849-3272,

Tile: Porcelanosa, San Jose, 408-467-9400,

Goal of project: Create a larger master bedroom, bring in more light, move barn

Year house built: 1957, remodeled in 1999, 2014

Size of home, lot: About 5,300 sq. ft. on a 1.4-acre lot; 6 bd, 6.5 ba

Time to complete: One year to design; one year to build

Budget: $1.3 million


This article appeared in print in the Spring Home + Garden Design 2016 publication.

Contributing Writer Carol Blitzer can be emailed at

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