Home & Garden Columns

The Sunset ‘Idea House’ Opens for a Peek This Month

By Steven Finacom
Friday January 18, 2008

For many years the Bay Area-based Sunset Magazine, self-described “magazine of Western living,” has been sponsoring “idea houses” in partnership with builders and manufacturers. 

Ranging from subdivision homes to country retreats, these structures are temporarily opened to the public to showcase their design concepts and fixtures.  

It’s a bit like a decorator show house, but with the architecture and building systems promoted as much as the décor. 

The latest Sunset project is in San Francisco’s Mission District. It’s their first Idea House on a solidly urban site, and incorporates a mass of “green” features and materials from a power-generating wind turbine to sustainably harvested wood paneling. 

Sunset’s literature describes it as “one of the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified residential remodels in the nation.” 

The curious can tour it for $20 per adult this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, as well as Jan. 25, 26, and 27, after which it closes to the public for good.  

The house—not owned by Sunset—was originally scheduled to premier in August 2007 and close in October, but didn’t open until late November, accompanied by a cloud of rumor and speculation that’s detailed, denied, and discussed on local real estate blogs. 

The building has two units. The smaller one is described as 1,229 square feet. Sunset’s literature doesn’t give the size of the main house, but some on-line sources say it’s 3,600 square feet. 

Surrounding buildings are a mix of Victorian and Edwardian houses and apartment structures, some intact, others remodeled. 

The Idea House, on a corner lot, is resolutely modernist, an asymmetrically angular structure in trendy green hues, designed by San Francisco architect John Lum. 

It’s supposedly “transformed from a 1908 commercial structure,” but I couldn’t spot a visible stick or shred of anything earlier than the 21st century from the site. 

Let’s go inside and take a look. 

The saying “your home is your castle” certainly applies here. A barbarian with a battering train would find it hard to penetrate the fortress-like main entry where two enormous metal doors sandwich a vestibule.  

The ground floor of the main unit is dominated by one of those “endless swimming pools” in which a current allows you to swim in place, along with a sauna, spa room, and half-bath. 

The second floor contains the private living quarters, bisected lengthwise by the stair atrium and a walnut-walled corridor. A guest room and bath, children’s bedroom, and spaces described as “craft room” and children’s “powder room” line up along the street side. 

The craft room has a striking bay window at the corner of the house, with northwest views and a built-in window seat below a light sculpture. The opposite wall is a rather impressive sculptural composition made up of scores of wood scraps left over from the hallway paneling. 

Across the hall a laundry room connects through to the master closet, as big as the guest bedroom. The master bedroom has two floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the interior courtyard, and is divided from the adjacent master bath by an interesting pass-through storage wall. 

The bath features a walk-in glass-walled shower, opaque glass wall facing south, and sculptural concrete counter and sink. 

Rising through the building core, the main staircase emerges in the center of the top floor. Although the floor plate here is smaller than the lower levels, the space seems large since there are no partition walls, except those enclosing a half-bath tucked in a corner. 

A glass bridge across the stairwell allows uninterrupted circulation around the perimeter. An “L” shaped kitchen with long, concrete topped, island, a dining area, lounge area and an adjacent sitting area and wet bar occupy the four quadrants. 

A wrap around outdoor terrace surrounds much of this level and also provides a visual setback from the street below and buildings across the street. Huge doors (both solid wood, and sliding glass) and window-walls that fold back allow much of the floor to be opened up to the exterior. 

The roof sports plantings, photovoltaics, and solar water heaters. 

This top floor has a very comfortable feel with extensive views, lots of light and air, and ample outdoor space. We were there on a not-too-warm January day but it was quite mild inside, even with some of the window walls open. 

(Unfortunately, what a docent cited as “liability concerns” exclude visitors from the terrace. You can only peer through the windows at the outdoor spaces on this level). 

The main unit is filled with built-in and customized storage spaces. An unobtrusive elevator flanks a light well. The central stair is both functional and sculptural, with layered glass treads, glass landings, and balusters made out of tautly angled cables. 

The main unit has a ground level patio in the southeast corner of the lot with plantings, pavers, patio, and an “L” shaped pond. The metal column of the wind turbine rises from one corner. 

There’s a sculptural tower of succulents and strawberries, a recycled plastic deck, and that must-have feature of all Sunset projects, an outdoor “barbecue bar” with the heft and presence of a jet engine. 

Floor to ceiling windows and glass doors divide the patio from the indoor pool. A two-car garage, a mechanical room the size of some studio apartments, and a second exit to the street complete the patio perimeter. 

Sunk beneath the patio are water storage / collection tanks, fed by an artistic “rain chain” that drains the roof. 

In the corner behind the wind turbine two steel beams project from the wall, presumably supports for a future switchback outdoor staircase that the floor plans show descending from the third floor terrace to ground level. 

The smaller second unit, with its own street entrance, hugs the western street side of the building. The ground floor has a master bedroom with no exterior windows, a gigantic master bath, a much more modest second bath, and two spaces—one with a modern murphy bed unit—that can be partitioned off from the circulation core by huge wooden doors that roll on tracks. 

There are no conventional windows on this level, only thick, opaque, glass walls along the sidewalk. A narrow planting verge between building and sidewalk is filled with bamboo for a second layer of privacy screening. 

The upstairs level of the unit has a laundry closet, half-bath, open kitchen / dining / living area, and a nice outdoor patio on the roof of the garage. 

In this unit, look above the stairs for the fascinating photovoltaic sculpture / fan by Mark Malmberg that animates itself, and the small planted “green wall” facing the street from the roof deck. 

I left with these impressions:  

First, the pluses: The really livable open third floor of the main residence and the intelligent approach of putting the “living” areas on top and the bedrooms on the middle level. 

A good effort to provide functional and pleasant roof terraces; there should be more of these in San Francisco, with its many flat roofs. 

Solar systems for hot water heating and power. The jury is out on the urban advisability of the wind turbine. It wasn’t moving during our visit, but both a Sunset employee and a neighbor commented it was pretty audible when spinning. 

The water systems that make extensive use of rainwater and gray water, and also help reduce storm and sanitary sewer runoff. 

Lots of storage spaces, some too modern for my taste, but cleverly designed and fitted in throughout the building. 

The Minuses: Excess. Does any individual Bay Area home really need a luxury kitchen plus a built-in cooking station in the garden, elaborate suites for children, bedroom sized closets, three refrigerators, two bars, two dishwashers, seven sinks, and its own sauna, spa, and indoor swimming pool? 

This house incorporates so many high-end appliances, fixtures, finishes, and design features that it’s improbable the average homeowner could afford to replicate them, at least in this quantity, quality, and combination. 

In the second unit bathroom, for instance, a docent said that the alluring Lumicor divider panels made of “architectural resin” and encasing thousands of tiny pieces of bamboo, cost $13,000. To me, that’s eco-porn. 

This isn’t light or simple living. It’s luxuriousness, albeit with a smaller carbon footprint than a conventional McMansion would generate. 

Such an outcome is to be expected from a project where numerous manufacturers and appliance suppliers want to showcase their wares, but it doesn’t make the result any less unsettling. 

There’s also the size of the main unit. “Faux Density,” was the reaction of the designer who accompanied me. This is not the “smart growth” that urbanization advocates idealize; it’s suburban size in an urban shell. 

The development is lower density than most of the surrounding neighborhood. Each floor of the main residence alone has enough square footage to be a comfortably sized apartment or condo unit.  

There’s also a huge amount of technical complexity. It’s a “green” house where most of the window coverings appear to be moveable only with electric motors, where hundreds of cables coil within closets and cabinets, and where the “mechanical room” is the size of a small garage and sports more fixtures, pipes, and motors than some research wet labs. 

I counted more than 80 separate cables bundled in the back of one closet alone. Presumably a corps of service and repair technicians will be needed in future years until that inevitable day when someone says “can’t get parts for this old thing anymore,” and it all has to be taken out and redesigned. 


Maybe some day Sunset will sponsor an urban home that’s functional, modest, and enduring. Now that’s an Idea! 




The Sunset Idea House is open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. the next two weekends only, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, through Jan. 27. 

Sunset doesn’t publicize the street address, and encourages visitors to park or gather at the San Francisco General Hospital parking garage (2500 24th Street) and catch a free shuttle to the Mission District house. The last shuttle leaves the garage at 3:15 p.m. 

Visit the Sunset website www.sunset.com or call their recorded information line, 1-800-786-7375 for official details. 

$20 per person at the door of the main unit. $15 for seniors on Friday, no children under the age of 10. 

There are docents throughout and lots of wall labels describing spaces and features. 

Each visitor gets a glossy brochure that’s part description, part product advertising. The back of the brochure has useful floor plans that are slightly different from the as-built structure. 

A stop in the garage will yield a hefty armload of free product materials, brochures, and advertising for all of the various manufacturers and others partnering on the project. 

The house is not wheelchair accessible. Improbably, there are three concrete steps from the front door to the interior elevator.