Rethinking the Nest

With their children grown, the Stanford couple felt uneasy in the old family home. Their son had a radical solution.

July/August 2015

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Rethinking the Nest

IN WITH THE NEW: The family took a deep breath, started over and got their dream house. Photo: Bruce Damonte

Helen Blau and David Spiegel were feeling a bit restless. For more than three decades, the prominent Stanford medical professors had enjoyed married life in their beloved California ranch house on a leafy suburban street in Menlo Park. They'd happily reared two children there and seen both graduate from the Farm. But now that the kids were grown, the family home felt strangely quiet and obsolete. The empty nesters felt wistful walking past the empty bedrooms and frustrated over the house's growing repair list. Nearly all the other original ranch houses on the street were long gone, replaced by Silicon Valley mini-mansions worth $3 million or more.

Spiegel and Blau toyed with the idea of moving to a different house. But instead of leaving the neighborhood, they did something few parents could imagine: In 2010, they hired their then-29-year-old son, Daniel, '03—a budding professional architect who'd recently earned a master's degree from Harvard's Graduate School of Design—to design a completely new house for the same lot and supervise its construction there. Daniel's then- girlfriend, Megumi Aihara, would be the landscape architect.

In many ways, the family building project was a leap of faith. The busy Stanford professors knew little about construction, and although their son and his girlfriend had worked for well-known architectural firms on the East Coast, they had never designed a single-family home or supervised a project on their own. Adding to the pressure was a happy surprise: Dan and Meg announced that they would like to have their wedding at the house within a couple of months of its completion. "I was worried," David Spiegel, associate chair of psychiatry, recalls, laughing. "People told us, 'If you go through with this, you may never want to talk to each other again!' "

To be sure, there were some sleepless nights. While Dan and Meg pored over budgets, blueprints and building permits, the professors had to whittle down decades' worth of accumulated stuff, say goodbye to their family home, and engage with the young architects in countless hours of planning and negotiation—a process that psychiatrist Spiegel refers to as "extreme group therapy."

In the end, though, both couples got exactly what they wanted. The empty nesters now have an airy, environmentally sustainable, four-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath home that can easily be adapted to accommodate their needs as they grow older. The young designers have a showcase that they can present to prospective clients—one so innovative that it recently won an award from the San Mateo County chapter of the American Institute of Architects for excellence in new residential design.

There was an unexpected bonus. Somewhere along the way, the two couples found a new way of relating to each other—one based less on parent-child dynamics and more on adult collegial respect. "It was an interesting blurring of the family and professional relationship," Dan recalls, joining Meg and his parents on the new house's roof deck overlooking Cotton Street, a few blocks from downtown Menlo Park. "I had to learn to think of my parents' criticisms or concerns about the design as being separate from criticisms or concerns about me or my process," he says. But at the same time, "I've probably never talked with them more in my whole life. It was really nice. In some ways we've never been closer."

With its contemporary lines and western red cedar siding, the professors' award-winning new home, completed in 2013, looks different from the traditional houses around it. That's not altogether surprising. Although they have roots in New York and England and did their professional and graduate work at Harvard, both were attracted in the 1970s to the West Coast's freewheeling intellectual climate. At Stanford, Spiegel felt free to buck Old World Freudian traditions and explore the potential benefits of hypnosis, antidepressant medications and group therapy for his patients. Today, as director of the Stanford Center on Stress and Health, he is internationally known for his work on the mind-body connection. Blau, a professor of microbiology and immunology, was featured on the cover of Stanford in 1988 for her pioneering work on the control of genes in human muscle tissue. Today, as the director of Stanford's Baxter Laboratory for Stem Cell Biology, she leads the search for cures to diseases such as muscular dystrophy.

Spiegel - FamilyMISSION ACCOMPLISHED: Spiegel, Blau, Dan and Meg savor the new home, which replaces the 1978 Cliff May ranch-style house (below). (Photo: Gary Parker)

Spiegel - BeforePhoto: Courtesy Spiegel Aihara Workshop

The couple's original home on the site, a Cliff May kit house they purchased in 1978, was the epitome of California ranch casual: exposed redwood beams, an open indoor-outdoor floor plan, expansive picture windows and a swimming pool in the backyard. "It wasn't fancy or elegant," David Spiegel recalls fondly, "but it was full of light." It also turned out to be a great place for rearing Dan and his younger sister, Julia, '06, now a policy adviser to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. "It was fun and informal," the psychiatrist explains. "The kids could run all over the house without breaking things. We always tried to make it the place where their friends wanted to be."

When Dan was a youngster, he had a passion for building elaborate high-rise structures with wooden blocks. He also looked up to his maternal aunt and uncle, who taught architectural history and architecture at Harvard. But Stanford had no formal architecture program, and it took him a while to find his niche on the Farm. First he tried premedical studies, then management science and engineering, and finally public policy, where he paid particular attention to issues of infrastructure, land use and transportation. "People often ask me about switching from public policy to architecture," he says, "but I really think it's all a continuum. The built environment is a very important element of public life and public policy. Good design can help foster good communities."

Spiegel - FramePhoto: Courtesy Spiegel Aihara Workshop
Spiegel - Roof DeckPhoto: Bruce Damonte
Spiegel - PanelsSOLUTIONS: A structure inspired by old rural water towers is a self-contained unit for guests, saving on heating and electricity needs already reduced by solar panels. (Photo: Bruce Damonte)

After earning his master's in architecture from Harvard, Dan spent several years working out of his uncle's Boston architectural firm, Peter Rose and Partners. The idea of launching his own practice by starting with a house for his parents was bolstered by a book calledA House for My Mother: Architects Build for Their Families by Beth Dunlop.

At first, Dan's parents weren't too keen on the idea of a completely new house. Yes, the old place had problems, but they were truly fond of it. Couldn't they just remodel? No, their son explained gently; that wasn't cost-effective. The rancher had dry rot and termites, and any walls left would have to be torn apart to remove asbestos, replace the windows, improve seismic stability, and bring the electrical and plumbing systems up to code. "I remember that Saturday morning conversation well," the elder Spiegel recalls, laughing, "because I was thinking about how much all of this was going to cost!"

Julia understood their concerns. Saying goodbye to her childhood home—"the place where I felt safest in the world," she says—was scary. "But the reality was that we had all outgrown our old home," she adds. "My parents no longer needed rooms for me and Dan within immediate reach of theirs; they didn't need a shed for pool supplies and old photography gear that were shrouded in cobwebs; and Dan and I really wanted to be able to spend time in our home as adults with our partners, which was a little awkward with a twin bed, or in Dan's case, posters and pictures on all five available surfaces of his old room."

As his parents slowly warmed to the idea of new construction, Dan handed them a questionnaire asking them to list what they liked about the old place and what they didn't. A faded color photograph, taken two years later, shows the glum couple standing by the remains of their demolished house. Their adventure was in full swing.

When many architects design a house, they start by asking clients what features they would like to have in it. Dan Spiegel prefers to talk about daily rituals and routines. What do you like to do when you first wake up? How do you unwind after work? How do you like to entertain? Blau said she envisioned herself drinking coffee and reading the morning paper in a sunny breakfast nook, working in a private study overlooking a garden and sleeping in a bedroom "filled with sweet breezes." Built-in bookshelves and storage cabinets were a must. And since both professors are keen folk musicians, the living room needed to have good acoustics. En suite guest bedrooms were desirable, though not in the main house. Another need—unspoken by the professors but very much on the minds of the designers—was for a wheelchair-accessible home that would allow the empty nesters to age gracefully in place or even house a caregiver, should the need arise.

For inspiration, Dan looked at photographs taken back when Silicon Valley was a land of walnut, cherry and apricot orchards. One feature that caught his eye, an old farm water tower, suggested a solution to the guest bedroom problem. By stacking occasionally used rooms in a compact, three-story rectangular tower, topped by a roof deck on the front left corner of the lot, they could be shut off from the rest of the low-rise house, without heat or electricity, until needed. The one-story main living area, with its expansive windows, exposed lumber and visible steel beams, would echo Pierre Chareau's famous Maison de Verre(House of Glass), which the family had seen during a vacation in Paris. The open indoor-outdoor floor plan, interspersed with native and drought-tolerant gardens, would hark back to California's mid-century modern and ranch traditions.

Spiegel - Bedroom
Spiegel - Bath
Spiegel - Kitchen
Spiegel - PoolINSIDE/OUTSIDE: Interior materials are all natural, and every room has a view of the landscape in at least two directions. (Photos: Bruce Damonte)

Throughout the three-year planning and construction process, Dan brought home a series of progressively more detailed models of the future house for his parents to mull over, along with samples of slate, granite, and plumbing and lighting fixtures. Meg—a native of Hawaii and a Brown University graduate who had helped design the gardens for Stanford's Windhover Contemplative Center and Dallas's George W. Bush Presidential Center, among other professional projects—did the same with plant specimens and pavers.

She also helped Dan figure out user-friendly dimensions for the kitchen. "I was worried that the passage between the two islands was too narrow," he explains, "so at one point we moved the furniture around in our Boston apartment to model the space, and pretended to cook." Meg smiles at the memory. "Dan often woke up at night, having anxiety dreams over this house," she says. Her husband nods. "There were all kinds of places where it could have gone wrong," he continues. "I felt confident in my designing abilities, but I had next to no experience with construction, and absolutely no experience running the financials of a project. When the old house was demolished, it really hit me that it would have been easy to bankrupt the family." His mother is sympathetic. "Dan never let us know about this side of things, because he was acting like the confident architect," she says. "Sometimes David and I would wake up in middle of the night, too, and ask each other, 'Is this going to work?' "

In addition to communicating honestly and frequently with each other, the family members made a point of inviting over the neighbors to keep them abreast of the project and assuage any concerns. The strategy must have worked, because when the time came for Dan to apply for a city use permit, no one showed up to complain, and the plans received a unanimous thumbs-up from the Menlo Park Planning Commission. "I don't want to miss an opportunity to say how nice it is to see an example of real architecture come to us, especially one that isn't afraid to be a little challenging," longtime commission member and local architect Henry Riggs told the audience in the chamber. "I think this is an example of how a different animal can come into an environment and yet be harmonious."

Chicago architect Mary Brush, who recently toured the finished house with an international group of colleagues, agrees. "I fell in love with this building the moment I saw it," says Brush, winner of the American Architectural Foundation's prestigious Richard Morris Hunt Fellowship in 2005. "It's a progressive, modern structure, nestled within a very traditional neighborhood, yet it's still complementary. If it were concrete and cold, it wouldn't have worked. But because it's such a nice, warm, ruddy red color, it fits in well."

From the air, the professors' 4,500- square-foot house, built by veteran Menlo Park contractor Hunner and Associates, looks like three interconnected shoeboxes, with a fourth one tipped up on its end. Inside, though, there's nothing boxy about it. The first thing one sees upon entry is a 35-foot-long floor-to-ceiling glass wall, which frames a Zen-like courtyard garden of drought-tolerant grasses. A lone gingko tree, planted in the center, turns a brilliant yellow in the fall. One of the designers' guiding principles was that every room in the house should have a view of the landscape in at least two directions. "We wanted to bring in what we think makes this region so amazing, which is the climate," Dan explains. "Usually landscaping is the parsley on the pig; designers add it at the end to garnish the house. But for us, landscaping was a conceptual driver."

To maintain the tranquil feeling, Dan kept the interior materials natural and uniform throughout: green slate floor tiles quarried in Vermont, gray granite countertops from Virginia, kitchen appliances and cupboards hidden behind maple millwork paneling, built-in Douglas fir bookshelves, and exposed lumber ceiling joists that gently disperse sound and reflect light. The dining room table and study desks were made from black acacia boards found at a salvage yard. There is no need for area rugs because the floors have radiant heat, and no need for curtains or blinds (except in the master bedroom) because the gardens were designed for privacy. The high-tech sliding glass doors and windows effectively block heat and drafts.

The dual-paned argon-filled windows aren't the only energy-saving features in the house. Air conditioning is unnecessary because the roof has extra-thick insulation as well as operable skylights that promote the exchange of warm air for cool. A 6.5-kilowatt solar panel array over the garage, completely hidden from the street, provides most of the electricity for the house, while a simple thermal coil solar array over the master bedroom wing provides all the heating necessary for the swimming pool. All the heating and electrical systems in the house can be controlled remotely, zone by zone, via smartphone. Unused areas can be "turned off" completely.

While Blau and Spiegel are delighted that their utility bills are about a quarter of what they were in the old ranch house, what they really like about their new home is the sense of calm it exudes. "I always feel peaceful and happy here; I'm always finding new little places to sit and do things," the psychiatrist notes. Blau feels the same way. "If it weren't for Dan, we never would have had this house," she says, gazing out from the tower roof deck to the nearby evergreens and the setting sun beyond. "I can't believe it's ours."

In the two years since their dream wedding by the backyard swimming pool, Dan and Meg have been busy. Their San Francisco-based design firm, Spiegel Aihara Workshop (SAW), has taken on a dozen more commercial and residential projects, including family homes for several Stanford classmates. Probably the greatest thing about designing a house for his parents, though, was the process itself—because it taught him how to have empathy for his clients. "Friends used to ask me, 'How could you tear down your childhood home?' " He adds, "Luckily, we had a psychiatrist on staff."

Theresa Johnston, '83, is a writer based in Palo Alto.

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