In the hillside neighborhood of Castro Heights in San Francisco, a nondescript, midcentury terrace home has been transformed by Aidlin Darling Design into a three-story, multi-generational oasis crowned with a wild roof garden. “The existing home was dwarfed by its neighboring houses,” says architect Joshua Aidlin, cofounder of Aidlin Darling Design. “The final massing of the home thoughtfully fills in what had been the ‘missing tooth’ among the existing row of homes on the street.”

There is now continuous, stepped landscaping from one home to the next as the buildings and street rise up the hillside. 

The renovation not only accommodates the clients and their three young sons, but also two grandparents. With the addition of the third floor, the home boasts spectacular views over the city to the east and the iconic Sutro Tower to the west. “The design intent was to create a glass house that captured and framed these two opposite conditions that flanked the house east to west,” says Aidlin.

The home has large areas of glazing on the east and west facades. Given the small footprint of the home and the open floor plan, the entire interior experiences direct light in the morning and evening.

The east and west facades feature expansive windows to capture the dramatic views, while the north and south facades have minimal apertures to maximize privacy. The steel brise soleil that extrudes from the front and rear facades of the house shields the interior from the sun at various times of day, as well as providing privacy from neighboring buildings.

The two monolithic walls on the north and south sides are integrally colored, steel-troweled plaster. They anchor the home in its site as well as provide privacy from neighboring homes. 

The vertical layout of the home is driven by the relationship between the three generations that make up the household. The grandparents’ and three boys’ bedrooms are on the first floor, adjacent to a small family room. This layout  offers the opportunity for the grandparents and grandchildren to bond.

Both the boys’ bedroom and family room spill out into the ground floor garden, providing the children with an expanded play area outside of the house.   

The central stair sits against a three-story mahogany cabinet that houses a powder room, a study, and a multitude of closets. 

The sculpture in the entrance is by Greek sculptor Kostas Koulentianos.

The second floor of the home contains public spaces for the family to come together, including the kitchen, dining, and living rooms as well as two built-in study nooks. The living room, which features a fireplace as the focal point, overlooks the front garden, while the kitchen and dining room overlook the rear garden.

The second floor is where all three generations come together to eat, play, work, and gather around the fireplace.  

The stair is quite porous, directly connecting the dining room, the study, and the master suite when desired. One of the study nooks on the second floor—adjacent to the kitchen and dining area—looks through the stair toward the front garden. 

The study area on the second floor leads to a bridge that extends into hillside in the rear garden.

The third floor is the master suite, which provides the couple a space to escape the high activity of the children when needed, but also a welcome respite for the kids to play with their parents in the extended master bedroom. This floor also features a hidden work desk and a fireplace with a remarkable view over downtown San Francisco.

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The top floor, where the master bedroom is located, incorporates south- and north-facing clerestory windows to bring additional natural light to the interior. 

The master bathroom also features large areas of glazing. “The clients are not tremendously modest,” says Aidlin. “They strove to have a spectacular view of Sutro Tower from their master bathroom.” 

The large master bedroom can also be used as an additional living area by the parents and the children.

Like the second-floor living room, the more private living area in the master bedroom boasts a fireplace and expansive views.

“There is an innate required intimacy to the house that you usually find in European or Latin American homes,” says Aidlin. “It was wonderful to address the three-generation urban home as a design problem, where every square inch of the house is necessarily utilitarian.”

The stair features a steel balustrade and floating timber treads.

The three floors are connected by a central, steel, switchback stair with floating wood treads that nestle between a three-story plaster wall and a three-story mahogany cabinet. “The clients requested the main stair be a heroic and sculptural experience,” says Aidlin. “It is quite porous and captures dramatic views of the San Francisco skyline, and more intimate views of the rear garden, from its numerous landings.”

All three floors are connected by a singular sculptural stair that unifies the experiences within the home.  

The clients were also interested in incorporating sustainable architectural strategies where it made sense. The brise soleil controls light and heat gain, deep overhangs offer passive solar control, and cross-ventilation is enabled by the narrow footprint and operable windows and doors.

The deep brise soleil shades the interior as well and offers privacy from neighboring buildings without compromising the views.

Operable windows and doors on the east and west facades allow for effective cross ventilation across the narrow footprint of the home.

Perhaps the most spectacular realization of this ethos is the living roof, which performs multiple functions: it forms an insulating body for the interior, naturally filters rainwater prior to entering the public sewage system, and provides the occasional biophilic prospect to view the city from. “Sitting in a beautiful field while on the roof of one’s city home is quite a unique experience,” says Aidlin.

The living roof is planted with a combination of natural grasses and succulents. From the roof, there is a panoramic view over San Francisco to the East Bay. To the west is the instantly recognizable Sutro Tower. 

This connection with nature is also found on the ground floor, where the boys’ bedroom and the playroom open out onto the garden. On the second floor, the connection is much more dramatic, with a 10-foot-long steel bridge extending out into the rear yard hillside, providing access to the garden below.

The steel bridge—which echoes the design language of the steel brise soleil—extends from the second-floor study into the rear garden.

“The home expresses the clients’ very individual values while pleasantly surprising them on a daily basis,” says Aidlin. “A perfect example is the magic of how the light changes throughout the day and the year—I often get photos from the clients capturing an amazing light phenomenon that they are currently experiencing. It is incredibly gratifying. Your house should be a living, breathing source of inspiration.” 

Sustainability diagram of Terrace House by Aidlin Darling Design.

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