In 1972, a 3-year-old Kevin Zeller stood on his grandparent’s 6,800-square-foot vacant lot in Napa’s historic district. Today, Zeller, a successful architect, founding partner of Zero Ten Design in San Francisco, is proud to say that this lot is no longer vacant.
In June 2013, Zeller’s father, attorney Robert Zeller, commissioned Zero Ten Design to build a home for him and his wife, Inge. The property has an interesting history starting with its purchase by Robert’s parents, Hugo and Virginia Zeller, in 1934. Young Robert and his family already lived in the house next door and this new addition primarily became the neighborhood playground. During World War II, Hugo and Virginia turned it into a Victory Garden where neighbors grew and shared produce. After the war, the Zellers used it as the family garden for a time until reverting it back to a dirt lot.
With such ties to this property, what went through Kevin’s mind upon hearing his father’s request? What would he imagine for this wide-open space? He graciously answered these questions and more.
Cowger: What was your first reaction to your dad’s request?
Zeller: I was thrilled — and equally excited for our firm, which was only a year old at that point. My dad has been incredibly supportive of Zero Ten Design, and my partners, John Rojas and Jaime Shorten, and I were extremely appreciative of the opportunity.
Cowger: Why did you choose a gambrel roof form?
Zeller: We felt it was important to embrace Napa’s agricultural history. We looked at a number of traditional barn styles and sketched dozens of design iterations. What’s amazing is that we finally realized that our most valuable precedent was already sitting at the back of the lot. “The Dog House,” as it’s known to my dad, is a simple little barn with a gambrel roof built by my grandfather, Hugo, in 1946 as his office after he retired. My dad says it got its name because “it’s where I was sent when I was in the dog house.” According to my Aunt Mary, it was mainly used for “wild parties full of drinking and dancing.”
With this newly found appreciation for what I’d always known as an abandoned garage, we realized that the new house should embrace The Dog House and be in harmony with its simple, but beautiful shape.
Cowger: Tell me about this style.
Zeller: Dutch settlers brought the gambrel roof to the States in the 1600s — most commonly seen on dairy and horse barns, where the unique shape maximized storage room in haylofts while minimizing the height. From the beginning, my dad said he wanted a two-story house with two spacious bedrooms upstairs to accommodate our large family. The gambrel form allowed us to do so and also stay under the city’s height limit.
Cowger: How did you incorporate contemporary materials and features without losing the essence of this centuries-old style?
Zeller: The basic materials are the same as used centuries ago: wood framing with wood plank siding, wood plank floor and simple, interior wood detailing. More contemporary materials appear in the interior finishes such as quartz countertops, porcelain tile bathroom floors and LED lighting fixtures.
The most contemporary feature of the house, however, is the open plan. Traditionally, this style of home would have very distinct and separate main rooms, but we designed one big “Great Room” on the ground floor, from front to back, that incorporates the kitchen, living and dining areas. This open plan creates a large, communal space where everyone can interact — a goal that was very important from the beginning.
Cowger: What challenges did you face during this project?
Zeller: The narrow lot, existing well, and Dog House locations. Overall, the most challenging aspect was ensuring that all design elements supported the principal idea. Since we provided full architectural design services from concept through construction, we were able to successfully carry the design idea all the way through to the smallest details. We also had a fantastic builder, Roy Beaman Construction, who took great care in every detail of the house.
Cowger: What are some of the features you and your parents are most pleased with?
Zeller: Our family took the house for a test drive this past Thanksgiving. I was most pleased seeing everyone hanging out in the Great Room and enjoying the communal aspect of the space. My dad seemed impressed with how the Dog House was incorporated into the whole design, and my mom was really happy that her new bedroom faces a lush and sunny garden. The breakfast nook is also a hit as another option for a cozy communal experience. It just goes to show that spaces affect the way people feel and interact and how important it is, as architects, to provide opportunities for these interactions.