In setting out on any project for her clients, designer Heather Hilliard begins her assessment by asking for a sense of their “environmental biography.”
“Where people were raised,” Hilliard offers, standing on the ground floor of a recently renovated historic house in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow neighborhood, “they’ll [often] have really good memories.” Those memories will inform their tastes and what they hope their future home to become, she adds.
For the homeowners on this project, two community-involved tech startup founders and executives, their unique origins—Virginia and Germany—provided a distinct vision of what would result from a three-year top-to-bottom renovation. (They asked that their names be withheld for privacy.)
“Where I come from in Munich, the people really love to be outside and to eat outside,” the homeowner says. The pair also wanted to take advantage of their vicinity to the San Francisco Bay, neither having grown up near the water.
A Gloster Furniture Raw Split table in teak top with water-buffed finish and contoured edge and Fibonacci Ava side chair in Smoke make for a perfect gathering space.
Accordingly, their new house consciously transmits a sense of openness and a breezy connection to the outdoors. Bathroom walls and floors are made of stone slab rather than tile. The kitchen feels like an extension of the outside, as steel-frame glass doors open to a patio with a lush living wall of blue star, sunset velvet and Key lime overlooking a green backyard below.
Next to the master bedroom, a large power sliding glass skylight floods the third floor with sunlight and opens to a spacious rooftop that, alongside a dining area and fire pit lounge, offers a sparkling view of the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and Angel Island. In the master itself, wide picture windows provide a similarly expansive view of the city and water.
The house is full of contemporary, custom-made flourishes—built-in nightstands whose wooden surfaces contain invisible wireless charging pads, automatically drawn shades in the master that block out all traces of light— while maintaining a sophisticated warmth, with touches of color.
“I had a very clear understanding of what I was hoping the house to feel like more than to look like,” the homeowner says. “I wanted the house to feel modern and light, but, at the same time, welcoming for guests and cozy for us as a family to live.”
The renovation struck this balance in the small details. “Everything in the house is very soft and very round,” she notes. “Couches and carpets are deep and soft, and even the lights have no sharp edges.” The open kitchen, complete with a suede-textured granite island and walnut dining table, exudes a sense of invitation with a roomy built-in bench that serves as a separate lounging area for the dining space.
The kitchen and its living room across the way are both strikingly airy, as walls were struck down to create more open space. These bigger tear-downs were part of a major overhaul— expanding the property from 3,000 to 4,900 square feet—not without its challenges. Early on, the couple, struggling to manifest their dream house, switched architects, eventually enlisting Sutro Architects to help carry out the renovation. The bottom floor, with entryways from the front door and from the backyard, includes a media room and office—fully decked out with a mini kitchen and dishwasher—that was entirely excavated. Certain features such as the rooftop required a lengthy permit process, adding to the renovation’s timeline.
A lot of meetings were held, she admits with a laugh. But the intensive three-year process meant creating a forever home for the young family, who welcomed a daughter during the renovation and also have three rescue dogs. Since moving in last fall, the family is still deep in the honeymoon phase.
“I wish I could tell you something different,” she says, “but I wake up every morning and I just can’t believe I live here.”