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Suited for family--and safer from fire.

Building in the hills above Berkeley, California, architects Marcy Li Wong and Donn Logan carved out a courtyard garden almost completely encircled by a house that borrows tone and texture from its surroundings. The house respectfully nods to the area's fire danger in extensive use of concrete block, lack of overhanging eaves, and minimal use of exterior wood.

The only flat area for outside play and entertaining is the 28- by 50-foot courtyard sheltered from winds by the house's two-story walls. One downhill corner, where broad boulders poke out of the ground, is open to views of pines and eucalyptus.

On-site boulders and trees set a textural theme for house materials, both on the exterior and inside. Lower portions of exterior walls are split-face concrete blocks, which have a coarse, irregular surface akin to that of the native boulders. For visual interest and to emphasize the horizontal lines of the house, every third row of blocks has a smooth surface. The result is a subtle gray-on-gray banding, further emphasized by angled sunlight.

Blocks, an ideal noncombustible material, are also used for courtyard retaining walls. The class A composition roof and the absence of projecting eaves contribute further to the fire-safe character of the house.


Changing to horizontal cedar siding on some of the facade breaks up the mass of the house and adds new texture and color that quietly repeat on interior walls. In the 74-foot-long multilevel main room (living, music, and dining areas), interior walls are painted taupe wherever the exterior is block, and off-white where there is wood outside.

Floors are dark gray scored concrete with a hydronic (hot-water radiant) heating system. Railings, stair treads, and built-in ledges are accented in primary colors and a cheery green. Kitchen cabinets are stained the same color as the exterior siding; counters are black granite.


The architects placed windows to take in views of the courtyard and of surrounding trees, while blank walls edit views of neighbors. Tall walls with sliding glass doors and oversize metal-framed windows keep the interior bright (the amount of glass remained within limits permitted by building codes).

Floor levels follow the lot's slope. The view from the small entry hall is down the length of the airy main room, whose three zones are defined by level changes. Nearest the entry is a dining area with a flat 10-foot ceiling. A few steps down lies a 12-foot-square music area. Below that, the living room has ceilings soaring 18 feet. Glass doors open to the courtyard on all sides from all levels.

The C-shaped floor plan puts private bedroom wings at opposite ends: the parents have a master suite off the main room, and the three young children have a playroom and bedrooms in a two-level wing across the courtyard. The adults, who sometimes work at home, can have quiet in the main room and kitchen area, while the children are playing in their own wing.
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Title Annotation:shielded courtyard garden for hillside house
Author:Whiteley, Peter O.
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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