A Japanese-Influenced Renovation in Tiburon

An addition by architect Cary Bernstein becomes life-changing in an already lyrical setting.

AFTER SEVERAL YEARS IN OAKLAND, London-born Chris Porter, 49, and his wife Laura, a Texan Anglophile, wanted to live closer to nature. They explored Marin and eventually found their spot by chance while driving around Tiburon.

The roughly two-acre wooded north-facing hillside lot had expansive views of San Pablo Bay. “ That was it. That kind of peace and quiet so close to San Francisco was remarkable,” Chris says. The commuter ferry terminal was a bike ride away.

At first, the flat, rectilinear 2,300-square-foot midcentury-style house already on site for them and their dog Bella. Its kitchen had been updated and the house needed only small tweaks. They loved it and it was popular with friends and family visiting from afar.

The downside? It only had cheek-to-jowl bedrooms, and the couple began to dream of a private master suite. “We could see the bay from the living room but not from our bedroom. And even then, we couldn’t see trees and the valley except from outside on the deck,” Chris says. Perhaps, they thought, a new wing — or even a treehouse — away from the main house might provide a better view.

Marin home designed by architect Cary Bernstein
Its entrance is heralded by a poppy yellow panel.
Entry court to Japanese inspired home by Cary Bernstein
The new entry court wends its way around the raised master suite to a fire stairway leading down toward the water.

Chris, currently a materials specialist and senior director with Fitbit, used to work for a San Francisco industrial design firm in offices designed by architect Cary Bernstein. Their spare design had always reminded him of Japan where his father had been stationed in the Army.

He called Bernstein, a New York émigré in the Bay Area with a degree from Yale, and she was excited about helping. Her typical assignments — disciplined, modernist urban in ll projects — rarely provided the opportunity to “stretch your arms out and engage the landscape,” she says. Besides, her brother lives in Japan, and “we had this Japanese connection and shared a ryokan-style aesthetic,” Chris says.

Master bedroom of Japanese inspired home by Cary Bernstein
The master bedroom has dark stained wood floors and an expansive picture window to drink in the view.

Meanwhile, Laura, who is a choral singer for the San Francisco Symphony and a business manager for a San Francisco clothing boutique, wanted a luxurious bathroom facing the view.

Inexorably, the plans for a modest 500-square-foot addition ballooned to 1,100 square feet. And to get the kind of psychological distance but physical proximity they sought between the old and new wings, they chose an attend area west of the existing house, “and we decided to have a long bridge between the two,” Bernstein says.

The roughly L-shaped addition was to contain a large bedroom with ample storage and a double-sided replace shared with the adjacent bathroom, which would have a central tub, a walk-in shower, separate sinks and a continuous wall of operable doors facing the view. “It also occurred to me that we should add details — like locked storage and doors, to separate it all from the main house — that would allow us to rent the addition out sometimes to help pay for it,” Laura says.

Bernstein imagined a floating, cantilevered structure but, limited by budget, she just designed the 7-by 21-foot entry bridge between the wings to be two feet higher than the original doors, “to allow the landscape to ow underneath.”

Library opens to views of the bay
The bridge doubles as a library and, in back, opens fully to bay views. The small covered back porch is a place to read. It connects to the master bedroom, and at the far end is the enormous spa-like bathroom. A double-sided fireplace serves both rooms.

Everyone was ready to proceed. But the ready-to-build site was not. The couple and Bernstein learned it had a history of landslides, so they needed to build a 50-foot-long, 6-foot-high retaining wall and then sink in some costly 8-foot-deep piers to secure the addition’s substantial concrete foundation to bedrock. And in case of forest fires, they had to include commercial-grade water pumps and sprinklers.

“It suddenly became an expensive landscape project,” Bernstein says with a sigh. “But when your geotechnical engineer recommends it, you have to listen.”

To mitigate costs, they abandoned the idea of decks cantilevered toward the view. On the bright side, the bridge — with facing front and back doors that open onto a 5.5-foot-wide deck — now doubles as a covered breezeway/deck. Stocked with books, it is also the de facto library, where Laura likes to sit and read when it rains and where Bella also finds refuge. Its operable doors all have screens because as much as she loves living in the woods, Laura is allergic to mosquitoes.

Japanese design tatami mats are complemented with large-format cream-colored tiles by Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa
The two ends of the walk-in shower were lined with Heath tiles and the large matte porcelain floor tiles that evoke Japanese tatami mats are complemented with large-format cream-colored tiles by Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa. The built-in bench is made of wood.

Walk-in shower lined with Heath tiles

Using voids and passageways and working holistically with interiors and exteriors “is a Japanese thing to do,” Bernstein says. Similarly, she also opted to work on all design aspects, including the interiors of the new wing, “but houses are analogous to people,” she says. “ They have an outer life and an inner life, and they are not necessarily matched perfectly.”

Responding to the trees, water and landscape, Bernstein chose a wide palette of textured materials and colors. Outside, the old house is painted the deep blue of the water, and the new, narrower cedar siding is a dark brown Spanish gray color. Large MDO (medium-density overlay) panels inspired by Japanese shoji screens secrete a pocket door at the front entrance, but instead of a discreet white, they are painted a bright California poppy yellow. “White would have been too literally Japanese,” Bernstein says. “I am a minimalist, but not always in a black-and-white way.”

Inside, keeping the colors relatively neutral made sense, but Bernstein did play with contrasts and textures. The bedroom’s dark stained wood doors abut earthy gray large-format 4-by-4-foot matte porcelain door tiles in the bathroom, where 16-foot-wide vanities on each side have figured maple cabinetry. The pale wood alludes to the trees outside but also contrasts well with dark Caesarstone counters.The earth-toned fossil-embedded limestone for the replace, found after several visits to different stone yards, complements creamy large-format Brix tiles called “linen” by Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa, on the bathroom walls. Their tofu linen-cloth texture also works well with the fickle blue/green of smaller Heath tiles in the shower that seem to change hues like the bay in the course of the day.

In the master bedroom, a large walk-in closet behind the bed has mirrored closets at each end. One of them contains a bar and refrigerator for renters; the other one holds Laura’s cashmere and wool things, sachets and lavender that can be locked away.

“We spend a lot of time in these rooms,” Laura says. “ is wing has become another living space.”

The spa-like bathroom is a big draw after a day of work, to soak in and even to have a glass of wine before a party. In the bedroom, the large picture window at the foot of the bed and the extraordinary quiet of the well-insulated space induce a meditative state. In the mornings, “we used to rise quickly to go into the main part of the house,” Laura recalls. “But now, we linger in bed with tea.”

Sometimes, a huge bay tree outside, populated with birds, rustles in the wind and, when it rains, seems to dance like a kinetic piece of art that deer and squirrels visit.

“I have never lived in such a space that always feels like you are on vacation,” Laura says. “On the deck outside, unless someone is in a boat in the water, no one can see us. We are completely alone.”

Back porch of Japanese designed home by architect Cary Bernstein
The back porch is where the owners’ dog Bella also spends her time, undoubtedly counting passing boats in the view.


Cary Bernstein Architect, cbstudio. com


Cary Bernstein, AIA, LEED AP; PROJECT ARCHITECT Matthew De Mott, RA


Weitekamp Remodeling & Construction Inc., wremodeling.com


Illuminosa Inc., illuminosa.com


Landscape Design, cferrislandscape.com


Rakks shelving, rakks.com; Fleetwood doors and screens, fleetwoodusa.com


Table lamp by Design House Stockholm, danishdesignstore.com; Shell Chair by Hans Wegner from Carl Hansen, carlhansen.com; coffee table, Around by Thomas Bentzen, from Muuto, muuto.com; Candice Olson rug, from Surya Rugs Sculpture Collection, surya.com; Grasshopper door lamp, by Greta Grossman, from Gubi, gubi.com.


Custom cabinets by Cary Bernstein Architect, built by Precision Cabinets, precisioncabinets.com; Nokori bathtub by Bain Ultra, from Bain Ultra, bainultra.com; Custom Platner Stool from France & Son, franceandson.com; bathtub fixtures, by Grohe Essence New, from Grohe USA, grohe.us.com; wall tile (blue), Field from Heath Ceramics, heathceramics.com; wall tile (beige), Brix Linen by Naoto Fukasawa, from Luminaire, luminaire.com; flooring, by Patricia Urquiola Dechirer for Mutina, from Stone Source, stonesource.com; sconces, Tight Light by Piero Lissoni, from Flos, usa. os. com; replace from Marquis Fireplaces, marquis replaces.net.

This article originally appeared in SPACES print edition with the headline: “Japanese Redux”.