California Home + Design Magazine
2008 CH+D Awards
Eco Friendly Architecture

Lot Twist
by Melissa Alvarado

It isn't easy being green. While environmental concerns are a priority now more than ever, sustainable building practices can still be more complicated and expensive than traditional methods. But with talk of government-imposed construction guidelines-such as San Francisco's proposed recommendations for greening private and commercial new projects-builders are getting in line to meet the demands of today's eco-conscious era.

Architect James Phillip Wright, previously known for extravagant Beverly Hills mansions and luxurious Malibu bungalows, made the leap into green design with two homes on adjacent lots in Potrero Hill. "All these sustainable products and building materials feel like a new palette for my canvas," says Wright. To efficiently utilize the L-shaped property-formerly the site of one 1,100-square-foot house built in the 1930s and an empty, landlocked area behind it-Wright used eco-friendly materials to build two new homes.   Click here to read more and for some views

Custom Wood Homes
Spring 2008

Spirit of the Land Panels
By Don Butler

For architect James Wright, capturing the meaning and history of the land was just as important as building a statement guest home when he signed on to tackle a residential project in California in 2001. "What struck me about the Lake Almanor area was the pristine quality of the lake and how uncrowded it was," Wright says. "It felt like going back in time-a real break from the energy of the suburban grid." Wright combined the best of both worlds, using boulders and wood and harvesting reclaimed items from a shuttered lumber mill to transform a mall cabin on Lake Almanor (a watershed of Mount Lassen) into a six-bedroom, 6,000-square-foot getaway for the owner's guests. The cabin was dubbed "The Rock House" when it was finished in 2005 as a reference to the many boulders and stone used in its construction.

Those traits led Wright to incorporate the area's culture, resources, and history into the cabin's "modern rustic" design. Flying into the area, Wright noticed the demolition of a lumber mill. "That inspired the use of salvaged material as the decor in the 'club room' of the home," he says. The owner liked the idea, and a stop at the mill proved to be fertile ground for material ("a smorgasbord of building elements," as Wright phrases it). Those elements included its flooring, which became the cabin's wall paneling, and giant 16-foot bandsaw blades, which became the wainscot in the game room bathroom. A large battered mirror used by the mill staff to observe the giant trees as they ran through the bandsaw blades adorns the party area. Even the control panel for the enormous equipment was salvaged for the ambience. Since the mill was in the process of being torn down when Wright discovered it, the team had to make fast choices on what...   Click here to read more and for some views

Lighting Design + Application
LD+A December 2007

LEC Panels Create Stairway to Heaven
by Rebecca Faizano

Guests seeking amusement might call the entertainment wing at the Chapin Residence in Salinas, CA, "heavenly." The 4,600-sq ft space is replete with a home theater, bowling alley, juice bar, lounge and wine cave. But the centerpiece of it all is somewhat more basic in function—a brightly glowing staircase connects the wing's upper and lower levels. Seventeen 1- by 4-ft glass steps glow a bright, even and clear blue, and on each glass step rests a stencil pattern of the homeowner's equestrian ranch logo. The stairway is a result of architect James Phillip Wright's vision and, as he says, is "the heart of the addition, a celebration of going up and down."
   Click here to read more and for some views

Luxury Home Style by the Sea
Winter - Holiday 2007

Prunedale Playground
By Michael Chatfield

Visible throughout Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties, the Don Chapin Company is a key player in the building of high-profile commercial and public-use projects. That kind of construction must be built to last.

So, to his family home, Don Chapin brought the same sense of permanence. "I give my customers value and quality" he says, "and I expect that in my own home:'
The original 5,500-square-foot house and horse ranch were built on 15 acres in pastoral Prunedale, The addition featured here, begun in 2004, brings the total footage to 12,800, Offering commanding views of the Monterey Bay, the Peninsula and the steep golden slopes of Fremont Peak, the site is part of Hidden Canyon Ranch, a Chapin Company luxury home development. "This is pretty close to God's country;' marvels Don.

Don turned to Lafayette architect James Phillip Wright, AlA on a colleague's enthusiastic recommendation, Don wanted a relaxed living space for his family that would incorporate strong, natural materials and complement the country setting. "I want a house I can live in:' James says, "This project - says a lot about Don:' Above all, the owner values his family. "He wanted the addition to be a comfortable playground for him, his wife, kids and friends;' he adds.

James-both a licensed general contractor and architect-designed and built many prestigious residences in Southern California before choosing to concentrate solely on architecture and relocating north, It was a good match: these men share guiding principles of quality and meticulous attention to detail that permeate their lives and their work...   Click here to read more and for some views

Home & Garden
Contra Costa Times

August 4, 2007
Craft-show artisan proud of their work
By Joan Morris

For Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith, the house on Natasha Drive in Lafayette was the house they were meant to have. But for a while, fate seemed to have other plans.

The house -- a remodeled 1940s Colonial-inspired California Craftsman -- was out of their price range, and a little more house than they were looking for. There was no doubt they wanted it, but reason kept telling them they should look elsewhere. Only problem was, they had fallen instantly and passionately in love with every detail of the home.

For three months they resisted the lure. They looked at scores of homes and made bids on several, secretly hoping they would be outbid. Finally, Smith says, they ended up looking at a house that adjoined the property, not realizing they were next door to their dream house.

"I remember looking over and seeing the roofline and realizing where we were. I knew I couldn't stand to live next door and look at the house I really wanted," Smith says, "knowing that it wasn't ours."

Fully committed to the house, they worked out a plan and moved in about a year ago. And they've never regretted it.

"The house takes your breath away," Aaker says. "I've always believed that the home makes the marriage, and this home gives our marriage such energy."
Aaker and Smith say they were fortunate to come upon the house after it had been completely remodeled by the developer, Dave DeZerega, using the plans of Lafayette architect James Phillip Wright.

Craftsman homes are usually dark with small rooms. The remodeled house is open and light, while retaining the spirit of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Wright, who has become friends with Aaker and Smith, says the old house had a tired style and he wanted to freshen it up, transforming the compartmentalized floor plan to one with a spacious indoor-outdoor relationship. The house is built with all natural materials, including cedar shingle siding, wood trellises and arbors, stone veneers, and nature-inspired colors for stains and paints.

When DeZerega bought the house, it was in poor shape. The foundation was failing and the pool and backyard, along with the house, were slowly inching down a slope. Wright recommended tearing away everything but the floor structure, raising it to excavate the basement. That solved two problems: The slipping, cracking foundation was repaired and stabilized, and the floor plan could be altered to create the open flow.

Wright also wanted to give the front of the house a more impressive entrance. The home is located on a narrow lot that dips down from the road, a position that tends to overwhelm the house.

To counter that feeling, Wright designed a porte-cochere with a cantilevered truss that extends over the driveway, hiding the garages that are below and behind the house. The porte-cochere also matches the entrance cupola, which gives the house an illusion of height and balance.

Aaker and Smith have added their own touches to the house. Smith, who works for Dolby Sound, installed a cozy home theater in the basement with a twinkling light ceiling. Aaker, a professor of marketing at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, has decorated every room, keeping the color palette earthy and neutral to match the feel of the house.

Smith and Aaker, and their three children -- 5-year-old twin boys, Cooper and Devon, and 1-year-old Tea -- have settled easily into the house, just like they were meant to be there.

What they like best

Smith has difficulty answering this question. Almost any place his eyes light is a favorite, from the abundance of wood to the hand-wrought light fixtures to the copper downspouts. But he settles on the "feel" of the house.

"My greatest pleasure is to sit on the couch in the family room and just look at everything," Smith says. "The woodwork, the details, the views. It's all there."
Aaker also focuses on the overall feel of the house, which she describes as peaceful. "Everyone feels it," Aaker says.

Smith is pleased, too, with the new home theater, only recently completed. In a house that is designed to be open and light, the theater is dark and cozy. It draws the family together. It also provides some privacy that had been missing. A television in an open space can be distracting to other members of the family.

Little surprises

There are dozens and dozens of them, from curved-front doors and rounded cupboards to the 61/2 bathrooms in the main and pool houses.

The driveway and pool area are paved in quartz bricks imported from Israel.
The formal living room or parlor is located to the left of the main entry and contains an inglenook fireplace.

The floors throughout the house are a combination of maple wood and travertine stone.

When the couple wanted a dining table for the great room, they turned to the man who had fashioned the kitchen counters, who found a matching slab of granite for the table.

At the rear of the property is a towering 70-year-old palm tree, and scattered throughout are smaller palms, all offshoots of the original tree. Smith says it gives the place a feeling of continuity.

Special touches

Wright designed repetitive touches in the house, which pleases the eyes of Aaker and Smith. All the interior wood, from the kitchen cabinets to the laundry chute door, is made of cherry and has three vertical slats. The trusses also are repeated throughout the home.

The central staircase is at the heart of the house, and climbing from the lower floor to the top affords a breathtaking view of the backyard, pool and valley beyond. Smith says he doubts anyone is enamored of climbing stairs, but he enjoys it because of the view, seen through windows 11/2 stories tall.

The refurbished pool was reinforced to anchor it in place, and Wright designed a pool house that has a bar, a guest bedroom and a full bath. Aaker says they love having guests drop by, and the pool house is in frequent use.

(Not really) drawbacks

The pool house also serves another purpose -- a sound wall. Highway 24 runs some distance behind the home, and while it's not visible, traffic sounds do float up the hill and through the trees. The house helps buffer the drone, but Smith and Aaker actually like the sound of civilization that does filter through.
They are both city kids, and sometimes the hills of Lafayette are a bit too quiet. They enjoy, Smith says, reminders that civilization is nearby.

One reason the house was on the market so long is that in this day of gigantic master bedrooms, this one is small in comparison. But Smith and Aaker say they prefer having the space given over to the communal areas of the home -- the great room, the kitchen, the dining room. Their bedroom is plenty big enough, they say.

Joan Morris is the Times Home & Garden editor. Reach her at 925-977-8479 or

Seeking 'Peek' experiences

A Peek Inside is an occasional feature that offers a look at some of the East Bay's most interesting or unique homes. And we're always looking for candidates. If you know of a home with a certain something, then let us know about it. Homes should reflect the owner's personal style rather than a professional decorator's vision.

Send us a note explaining why the home is special, as well as names, addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses. Photos will endear you to us.
E-mail to: (put A Peek Inside on the subject line), or mail to: A Peek Inside, c/o Contra Costa Times Home & Garden, P.O. Box 8099, Walnut Creek, CA 94596-8099.

A closer look

To see panoramic views of the Aaker-Smith house, go to architect James Phillip Wright's Web site,, and click on the "Lafayette" views


Two Houses, One Lot

No more Home Depot specials
Builders hope to tap top of market with two gems on Potrero Hill

Amelia Glynn, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, September 18, 2005

Misha Breyburg is giving his company an extreme makeover, homes edition. "They aren't for everyone," he says. "But it only takes two."

Breyburg, who is vice president of business development for Structura General Contractors, is referring to two luxury spec homes on Potrero Hill, tucked between 19th Street and what would be Utah Street, were it not for the bustling Highway 101 freeway butting up against the property.

A luxury home by the freeway? Impossible.

More than a few Bay Area architects and developers thought so. The double lot on 19th and Utah and the original small, plain-faced, single-family home there were passed over for years, until Structura's founders, Michael Plotitsa and Misha's father, Edward Breyburg, purchased them in 1999.

Accustomed to constructing multiunit buildings, which the younger Breyburg calls "high-end Home Depot specials," the company hired a draftsman to draw up plans for four condominiums. Then things became more complicated.

What had seemed like a straightforward proposal disintegrated into a drawn-out battle with neighbors who wanted to protect their views, their attorneys and the city's planning department.

The project took a new twist in 2000, when Misha Breyburg saw the plans and voiced his concerns to the founders that, based on the reductions in square footage required to meet the planning department's proposed compromise, the company would probably lose money if the structures were ever built.

-- -- --

When I first met Breyburg, he was wearing a tight white T-shirt and a black Hustler baseball cap. He is unapologetically Republican and proudly drives an eight-cylinder, gas-guzzling Mercedes. He describes himself as financially conservative and socially liberal. He voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

When he was 6, His family immigrated to the United States from Russia to start a construction business. Now 34 and very much an American, Breyburg nonetheless possesses a stereotypical immigrant mentality and believes that opportunity abounds. Getting ahead, to him, is simply a matter of going after what you want.

"My father and his partners built their business on sheer hard work," he said. "Before he came to the States, my father had never even held a hammer. I remember him coming home with his fingers cut and bloody. I don't think you need to work that hard to be successful."

Breyburg has had his hands in everything from retro Eastern Bloc T-shirt designs to sushi restaurants (he co-founded Blowfish in San Francisco) and now, the development and construction of luxury houses.

-- -- --

He knew architect James Phillip Wright from the years he lived in one of Wright's properties in Los Angeles, so he pitched him on the idea of working with Structura to build on the problematic Potrero Hill site.

"When I first visited the properties and took a look at the original, approved drawings, let's just say the whole thing looked pretty bad," Wright said. "If it weren't for my friendship with Misha and his commitment to the project, I would have never agreed to take it on."

Wright, best known for his Malibu beach bungalows and classical Beverly Hills mansions, worked with Breyburg to turn what was essentially a larger-than average lot into two single-family homes that share the use of a four-car garage that runs the length of the 19th Street property.

Wright is a believer that often, the more complicated the project, the better the results. "For me, the most difficult site to design for would be one in the middle of the desert with nothing around it," he said. "Undesirable circumstances force me to come up with unexpected solutions and these unusual details that become the most valuable and appreciated aspects of my work."

Although the designs of these tandem homes were influenced by many of the same environmental characteristics, they are architecturally very different.

The 705 Utah St. house emphasizes the relationships between vibrant colors and creative shapes, while the more traditional layout of 2311 19th St. showcases uncommon uses of sustainable building materials layered against creative landscaping and high-end finishes.

-- -- --

Edward Breyburg and Michael Plotitsa started Competent Builders in San Francisco in 1986 to serve the middle-class multiunit market in the Bay Area.
Sam Raiter, now vice president of operations for Structura, became a partner in 1989.

Meanwhile, Misha Breyburg was going to school -- in his words, "becoming Americanized." He attended Golden Gate University, where he studied sociology and marketing and worked a brief stint with a marketing company during the dot-com boom. Like many, he lost his job during the bust.

His break with the corporate world led him back to the family business in 2002, but not without friction.

Breyburg brought with him new ideas about marketing and running an American construction business. He persuaded his father and Plotitsa to re-brand the company, changing its image of constructing multiunit buildings in the outer Sunset and Richmond districts to building and developing luxury spec homes in the hipper neighborhoods of Potrero Hill and Bernal Heights.
To gain a better understanding of the real estate market, and because "it didn't make much sense to buy and sell through another agency," Breyburg received his real estate license in 2002.

Property in Bernal Heights and Potrero Hill is more affordable for Structura, compared with the Marina and Pacific Heights, Breyburg said.

-- -- --

"The zoning constraints heavily dictated the form of both homes -- Utah Street in particular," Wright said of the three-bedroom, three-bath cliffside home.

Several errors in the original, approved drawings also led to some interesting outcomes. The space allocated for the stairway that leads from the main living area to the master bedroom was not large enough to accommodate a standard staircase, so Wright created a winding stair with fan-shaped steps. "We pushed the limits of the stair code to squeeze a unique but functional staircase into a very tight space," says Wright.

The Utah Street home is an amalgam of three distinct designs, represented by three connected cubes of contrasting color and size. Its outward forms and colors speak directly to its inner styles and functions. The home's detached design and large, light-filled living room give center stage to the panoramic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Twin Peaks and Marin hillsides.

The streetside entry path passes through an enclosed water garden (complete with waterfall to soften the noise from the freeway) created from natural outcroppings of rock and earth. It leads to the heavy glass front door and first visual design environment -- a bright, carmine red stucco cube. Inside are the dining room and wet bar. A terrace and rooftop spa occupy the upper level.

Sandwiched in the center of the home is a wenge cube (pronounced WENG-ge, a dense, chocolate-brown African wood), which houses the kitchen on the main floor and the master bedroom and bath upstairs.

Curved, graduated steps from the kitchen culminate in the third cube -- the west-facing living room. Its corner fireplace, wide views, 14-foot floor-to-ceiling triple-paned windows and arched ceilings make it at once spacious and intimate. The silent movement of the highway below juxtaposed against the backdrop of the cityscape creates the perfect intersection of tranquility and entertainment.

For the 19th Street design, Wright used sustainable building materials in modern and often unexpected ways. He chose engineered lumber (made from the waste from sawmills) for the staircases, exposed beams, window and door trims, and other structural components. Usually covered by drywall, this environmentally friendly product was transformed into an interior design element that provides textural and tonal contrast.

Parklex siding, a European composite wood-panel siding system, lines the facade in San Francisco row-house proportions, achieving a pairing of modern, sustainable materials with traditional form. The exterior detail work incorporates Trex, a material made from a combination of reclaimed wood and plastic.

To provide privacy and natural color contrast, Wright constructed a wire mesh cage filled with soil and native wildflower plantings that borders the gently curved main entry staircase. (Think giant Chia Pet.) Although initially contained within the mesh structure, the plants will eventually grow past the wire to create a solid, green living structure.

Two large decks off the top-floor living room take in the 270-degree views.
"These homes took a lot more work and effort than other projects, but they were a lot more satisfying," said Raymond Ferreira, chief foreman for Structura. "I was skeptical of the use of materials like Trex for finishes, but now I like the way the door frames and window trims jump off the wall. Some aspects of building these houses were like creating special effects in the movies."

-- -- --

"Developers are often not interested in architecture and design," said Breyburg. "They want to maximize square footage, and they don't mind if they obstruct views and anger the surrounding community in the process. So much of development is about money."

Six years in the making, the Potrero Hill homes were listed at $2.2 million and $1.9 million in August. Construction took two years, and cost between $300 and $400 per square foot. The grand opening event on Aug. 25 drew hundreds of prospective buyers, architects, curious neighbors, friends and family.

"Everyone walks out saying 'Beautiful,' 'Wow!' " said Breyburg. "These aren't your typical cookiecutter properties." The Utah Street house is in escrow, Breyburg said last week, and the 19th Street house remains on the market.

"We would like to continue building these types of structures as both the developer and contractor," said Plotitsa. "Financially, it makes a lot of sense." The two houses are expected to return upward of 40 percent on investment because they are essentially two properties on one lot.

Although luxury residential homes are securing good returns, Breyburg says more middle-of-theroad buildings can still be constructed and sold with a lot less time and money at stake. "What we are noticing is that by building homes like these, we are building a brand," says Breyburg. "Calls and requests for our services are beginning to multiply."

When both houses sell, Breyburg plans to take a month off to vacation with his Russian sweetheart, who lives in Moscow. He hopes to come home engaged.n.