An Unconventional BeautySee more views of this home>>

The design of Amber and Dan Shaw's stunning 4,600-square-foot tri-levelhouse in Los Gatos emerged in response to an extremely challenginghillside lot - and the desire for a round dining table.

When theShaws were ready to build on their 3- acre site, they went throughseveral designers who were daunted by the challenges it presentedbefore turning to noted contemporary architect Mark English of SanFrancisco. The narrow piece of property - 1/4 mile long and 300 feet atits widest - is dominated by a grassy, oak-dotted hillside that goes up150 feet. A creek runs along the base and forms the lower boundary.

Thehouse is built in terraces into the lower third of the hill, which iscurved slightly like a bowl, explains English, who was assisted on theproject by his associate Jeff Gard. Picture a structure shaped roughlylike a wide boomerang, with three levels that stair-step up followingthe contours of the hillside.


The house is anchored by a circularfirst-floor dining room that tucks into the angle in the center. "Theinspiration for this house, at least the form of it, is an Inca ruinthat I saw down near Cuzco, Peru, because the way the Incas usedterracing in the landscape is so impressive," says English. "Theirbuildings seem to grow up out of the ground, and that's what this housedoes."

Pivotal to the design is the dining room, a cylindernestled into the bend of the house, which serves as the literal andfigurative center of the dwelling. Years before, the Shaws had seen around dining table and couldn't get it out of their minds. With thisdesign, English was able to give them a room that would dramaticallyshowcase this long wished-for piece of furniture.

"It seemed verynatural to bend the house at that point," he says, "and I thought itreally needed to bend around something more precious in form, morecomplete. The dining room and the dining room table are more precious -like a jewel. They are the ceremonial part of the house."

"There'sa geometry here," he adds. "The center of the table has radiating linesthat line up with other parts of the house. The dining room is the onlyroom that has a real strong center ... so the idea was that the wholehouse is pinned down at this point. This is meant to delight theviewer. No matter where you're seated at the dining table, you haveyour own special view along the radial lines."

There is nary a conventionally shaped room in the house; varying elevations, curves and angles are the norm throughout.

An Unconventional BeautyThefirst floor is dramatic, with pitched ceilings that extend up roughly25 feet to the ridge. The open kitchen is adjacent to an informalfamily area that extends off to one side and slightly behind the rounddining room; the living room is at the opposite end, on the other sideof the dining room. A pass-through behind the curve of the diningroom's interior walls connects the two arms. A long walkway on thesecond level, extending the length of the house, overlooks the firstfloor, and a similar one on the third level looks down on the other two.

Eventhe roof is uncommon. It segments sequentially, reducing in height andwidth as the structure curves. As a result, rooms on the third levelsimilarly decrease in height and width from the largest, the masterbedroom, at the south end, to the smallest, the guest bedroom at thenorth end. The boys' bedrooms and the guest room all feature loftsleeping areas, accessible by wall-mounted ladders, and living roomspaces.

Amber Shaw, a graphic designer, was pregnant with theirfirst child when they embarked on the building project. By the timetheir home was completed and the Shaws actually moved in, they hadthree sons, who are now 8, 10 and 11.

"As the boys were born, weknew we had to make it work for them. I didn't want the kind of housewhere I had to worry about every little thing. It's durable. We havemaple floors, granite countertops; the bathrooms are indestructible. Wetried to make sure that was practical as well as beautiful," she says.

KarenShea Design in Santa Cruz assisted her with the interior. "Karen was agreat complement to Mark," says Amber Shaw, "because she has children,and she has a sense of warmth that I wanted the house to have - so itwasn't just a cold, contemporary house."

Furnishings andembellishments, though commanding, are employed with restraint. Sheaused a combination of McGuire furniture with upholstered pieces, and"Amber supplied her knack for accessories." Among Amber Shaw's uniquetouches: a collection of crystal cakepedestal covers displayed on theupright piano in their living room.

The low-maintenance,water-thrifty landscaping was done by Christopher Kankel of Kikuchi& Associates in Half Moon Bay. "Edgier plants, grasses, were usedfor their textural and architectural characteristics. Bamboo was usedfor the same purpose - to give some vertical elements. We also usedhorsetail, a vertical green stick. We used that for a barrier, almost aguardrail."

Even the landscaping was impacted by the circulardining room. "We used that as the center of the design," says Kankel."Some of the plantings were meant to reinforce that, especially aroundthe pivotal point, the dining room, where we have pie-shaped plantingsthat responds to the round form of the room."

English describesthe Shaws' house as a "response generated to a specific place. It's nota style, it's a living space built to fit one place on Earth."

"Ilove the light and the sense of volume," Amber Shaw says. "I love mykitchen. It's big and it's open to the whole rest of the house. I likethe fact that we're surrounded by art and color and light."


  • Karen Shea Design
    Santa Cruz