Urban Oasis


In 2007, Jay Serrao and Melissa Szpik were running a successful architectural practice in San Francisco and living in a not-quite-family-friendly loft with their two young sons when they decided a change was in order. “We had designed homes for so many other people, we figured it was finally time to design one for ourselves,” explains Szpik.

The home’s orientation, deep eaves and disappearing glass walls keep the space cool and comfortable while minimizing energy usage.

The couple was lured to Sacramento by its affordability and the opportunity to live closer to family. (Serrao was raised in Sacramento.) Longing for both a backyard and walkable access to amenities, they scouted out several infill sites in the central city before settling on a weedy 40-by-120-foot lot in the city’s upper Land Park neighborhood, just blocks from midtown and steps from a stretch of Broadway that’s on the brink of an urban renaissance.

Serrao fabricated the steel open-riser staircase with the help of his brother-in-law.

Brimming with ideas, the couple, who met as architecture students at California College of the Arts, designed and built the 2,600-square-foot home themselves on the weekends over the course of a couple of years while renting a house around the corner. Serrao likens the construction phase to “a modern-day barn raising” thanks to help provided by family and friends.

Like the midcentury Case Study Houses made famous by architects like Richard Neutra and Charles and Ray Eames, the couple’s homebuilding experience was also an opportunity to experiment, refine ideas and perfect their craft. “Our fingerprints are on pretty much every part of this house,” says Szpik, from the foundation to the rooftop and everything in between.

The house’s exterior is clad in fiber cement panels, corrugated metal and Western red cedar.

The unabashedly modern two-story home is a marriage of understated beauty and practicality, starting with the butterfly roofline (the inverse of a traditional gable roof), which adds visual interest to the exterior and, more importantly, allows the northern and southern walls of the upper-floor rooms to connect to the outside through an abundance of large windows, flooding the spaces with natural light.

Behind the front entry’s custom-built mahogany pivot door is an airy foyer outfitted with convenient storage beneath the steel open-riser staircase. A hand-blown Italian glass light fixture illuminates the space.

Open shelves put the family’s Heath ceramic bowls and mugs within easy reach.

Beyond the foyer and down a short hallway lies the heart of the home: an open kitchen-dining-living space where the family, including sons Nate, 13, and Oliver, 10, spends the majority of its time. The centerpiece of the galley-style kitchen is a 12-foot-long concrete island. “I bake a lot, so there’s plenty of room to lay everything out,” says Szpik. “And Nate often does his homework here while I get dinner ready.”

Space-saving pocket doors conceal both a hardworking pantry and what Szpik calls a “pod”: the small utility room near the kitchen that houses a stacked washer-dryer unit and counter space for laundry folding and other household tasks.

Paintings by Sacramento artist Micah Crandall-Bear grace the wall here and in the rec room.

The great room is warmed visually by orange and green walls, mahogany paneling, translucent clerestory windows and a George Nelson bubble pendant that hovers over a handmade dining table surrounded by vintage chairs. Radiant heat imbedded in the concrete floors throughout the home’s bottom floor brings warmth to an otherwise cool material.

The room’s undeniable showpiece is more about what you can’t see than what you can: enormous sliding glass doors that, with a gentle nudge, disappear behind the wall, artfully blurring the distinction between indoors and outdoors and giving the home its quintessentially California character. It’s a feature the couple employs often in their architectural practice. When the doors are open, the smartly sited house—which, amazingly, does not have air conditioning—experiences a cooling cross breeze that keeps its residents comfortable in the summer heat.

The cleverly designed yard includes everything an active family could wish for: patio and lawn areas, a chicken coop, fruit trees, a fort, a basketball hoop (complete with handmade backboard), a grill and a fire pit. “We spend all of our time out here during the summer,” Szpik says.

The master bedroom, which enjoys direct access to the yard via sliding doors, requires little in the way of furnishings thanks to a thoughtfully placed walk-in closet. The simple master bath includes an open-format shower, a Duravit sink and a brick-red Heath tile backsplash.

The master bedroom opens up to the courtyard via a sliding door.

Upstairs is divided between the couple’s architectural studio and the boys’ living quarters, which includes light-filled bedrooms connected by pocket doors, allowing for adjustable levels of privacy for the brothers. A balcony off the bedrooms overlooks the backyard.

The architects’ sunny 600-square-foot studio includes ample desktop space in addition to a conference table and a wall of wood shelves that the couple made themselves. A small sink in one corner is not only convenient for making coffee but means the space is plumbed for a future bathroom should they wish to convert the space to living quarters at a later time.

Handmade shelves in the couple’s office are filled with design tomes and intricate architectural models.

“The house is designed to evolve,” explains Serrao. “I like to allow for things to change. And this house can do that.”