One couple’s perilous foray into the world of do-it-yourself home design.
MOVING EAST FROM SAN FRANCISCO’S popular Dolores Park area toward grittier Potrero Avenue was not a big leap for 40-something film- and design-world executives Kate Shaw and Dav Rauch.
Their old neighborhood, affordable in 1998 when they moved in, had been an outpost similar to the new one. In the back-alley entrance to the two-unit building they’d owned with friends, “we had to step over squatters to get inside the front door,” Shaw recalls.
But by 2012, Dolores Park and the Mission District had become the epicenter of hipness, and the couple’s appreciated equity enabled them to sell their share in the building and then buy their own Potrero 1880s Victorian, close to an elementary school for their sons Silas and Townes.
Although the “new” 2,000-square-foot house, with an illegal unit in the basement, was crumbling, it also came with a dilapidated 600-square-foot back cottage and a large yard, crowded with an ancient climbing rose vine, a sour cherry tree and a neighbor’s overflowing fig tree. It all offered possibilities — an endless supply of homemade Fig Newtons, for instance — and challenges.
They were not afraid of the latter. Shaw and Rauch met in Prague in 1995 and subsequently worked for Lucasfilm; she is now a director of learning for Airbnb, and he, an avid animator, directs product development for industrial design firm Ideo. So, combining their creative acumen and home-making insights, they refinished floors, painted walls and moved in to strategize what would happen next.
Working first with YamaMar Architecture on the cottage design and then withSF Design Build on the rest, they began to play. They dovetailed a new garage into their basement and camouflaged it to look like an existing bay window from the outside so it would not mar the historic facade. Simultaneously, the rear cottage — reclassified as a second dwelling unit — was stripped and redesigned as an open-plan living space with a loft bedroom that became the family’s temporary home and command central for the next year of remodeling.
“It was stressful but fun,” Shaw says. “We were right there and the crew got to be our family. They even tried to teach our boys Spanish.”
The children did not become bilingual, but they clearly absorbed building — and demolition — lessons.
After a weekend trip when their boys stayed home with a relative, Shaw and Rauch returned to find their old deck railings gone — hacked away by their energetic kids, just 7 and 4 at the time. “It looked like a beaver had attacked the deck and torn it apart it with teeth,” Shaw recalls with a shudder.
Unexpected turns notwithstanding, the first phases of construction went smoothly, in part because building codes overruled aesthetics. There was no arguing with that. However, the interiors became a war of Shaw and Rauch’s different worlds.
Although after living in the space awhile the couple knew what they wanted, they did not always agree on how to get there. “Dav and I have strong feelings about design and execution,” Shaw explains. She grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and always lived in the same house, whereas Rauch’s parents — serial remodelers in Santa Barbara — had often thrust him on the front lines of innovation and change.
“I wanted left and he wanted right; I wanted white and he wanted black. But we found ways to converge,” Shaw says.
A common goal: reconfiguring the main home’s rear section, as well as removing a wall between the dining and kitchen area for modern living without giving up any of the Victorian scale and charm.
Still, they spent agonizing hours choosing matching trims, ceiling medallions, replacement windows and doors. Professional team-builder Shaw systematically gathered and organized literally thousands of selections on Pinterest, and handyman Rauch mocked up many of them in situ. They agreed on an eclectic mix of classic and modern fixtures and finishes.
Along with Jessica Johnson of SF Design Build, who sometimes played referee, they also settled on functional ways to make the new spaces feel like the old. These entailed several compromises, including unconventional paint treatments. The kitchen is all white, the way Shaw likes it, and the living room, which has new built-in bookcases, is charcoal gray so Rauch can enjoy a martini in a man-cave darkness suited to the room’s dual purpose as a home theater. “I love watching movies there. They are an extension of telling stories around a fire,” he says.
Meanwhile, the dining room is a Solomonic “baby” divided in two. It has both white and charcoal gray walls; on the ceiling, the two colors meet diagonally.
For the back porch, which doubles as a home office, “the solution was to keep original window openings and replicate the exterior siding that used to be there,” Johnson says. “New old-fashioned paned windows (even the thickness of their mullions was a big consideration for them) help to frame garden and back cottage views and let in light.
A reconfigured powder room in the porch section has a nostalgic utility sink and boldly colored Mexican encaustic wall tiles in a herringbone pattern chosen by Shaw; it “feels new and old at the same time,” Rauch notes. “The tiles, although visually high-risk, are in a low-risk space.”
The kitchen, perhaps the most important room because “we cook and dine together every night,” Shaw observes, became Rauch’s department: His mother, a professional caterer, had exposed him to “real” kitchens that are durable and made to be fully practical. “My mother’s kitchen was meant for heavy use, and I learned to cook there. I also wanted materials that were not precious and would withstand serious use and remain usable 50 years from now,” he says.
So, stainless steel counters and a commercial-style Wolf range like one his mother had are reprised. Stained hardwood floors, open wood shelving and an island with a Carrara marble top add softer notes but are also practical. “You can easily roll dough on such stone,” Rauch says.
Upstairs are other signs of happy détente. Three small existing bedrooms remain unchanged, but the lower halves of their bare wood doors are each painted with different colors the couple could agree on.
By absorbing part of the hallway, they created a bathroom large enough for the family to crowd in before the boys are rushed off in a cargo bike to school. Its walls of large hexagonal encaustic tiles and its sliding door and backsplashes of cedar can all take a beating. Modeled after a bathroom they used in a vacation home in Buenos Aires, “it also has a claw-foot bathtub, an open curb-less shower and a large communal sink,” Rauch says, with a Cheshire Cat grin. “Bonding happens in banal moments when you brush your teeth together.”