Reimagining the California Ranch, Low/Rise House Sets a New Standard For Sustainability

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The energy-efficient Silicon Valley home that architect Dan Spiegel designs for his parents responds to their lifestyles, the site, and the local climate in a fresh interpretation of suburban housing.

Not every architect launches a practice by building a new home for their parents, but such was the case with Dan Spiegel of San Francisco-based Spiegel Aihara Workshop. The initial idea was to remodel the midcentury Cliff May home where Dan and his sister had grown up, but as the conversation evolved, they realized that it would be much more efficient to start anew.

The resulting residence in Menlo Park, California, is a long, low structure that recasts the traditional ranch house and farm tower as interlocking bars that divide private and public space and encourage energy efficiency. Placed throughout these zones, Nest Learning Thermostats enhance the home’s sustainable mission by intelligently conserving energy. As a result, Low/Rise House is a true reflection of his parents’ lifestyles, but also acts as a broader model for what suburban dwellings might look like—an utter departure from the McMansion.

"Rather than filling up each parcel with puffed up, monolithic volumes, we are trying to combine the super-high density and efficiency of urban environments with the long, low, breezy types of rural environments," explains Dan.

It was, naturally, a nerve-racking process at times. "There were nights I couldn’t sleep," says Dan. But the process of sharing articles and books, discussing models, and learning about his parents’ routines deepened his relationship with them in a kind of role reversal. "It’s a real privilege thinking about how to enhance the lives of people you love."

The previous layout forced the homeowners, Helen and David—professors of molecular biology and psychiatry at Stanford University, respectively—to pass by a series of empty bedrooms. The new configuration places guest quarters in a 30-foot tower and creates zones that can be essentially turned off to conserve energy. The dwelling shrinks and expands according to its usage, whether it be just the Spiegels, or when "the whole family comes home for Thanksgiving and fills every corner," says Dan. "It was an ecological benefit to have something that could adapt in small increments."

Low/Rise House opens up to a landscape of native and drought-tolerant grasses, and is thoughtfully composed on the site to take advantage of natural light and ventilation. Insulated glazing, radiant floor heat, and pragmatic materials lessen the home’s environmental impact, and a solar system supplies about 90% of its energy usage.

Enabling their desire to conserve, a number of Nest Learning Thermostats help reduce energy consumption in parts of the residence that aren’t in use by turning themselves off when no one is there, and they program themselves as they adapt to Helen’s and David’s routines. A Nest Protect smoke and carbon monoxide alarm and both indoor and outdoor Nest Cams round out the safe, smart, and sustainable home. While the user-friendly products are conducive to DIY setup, local Nest Pro installers are available to lend their expertise (one recently updated the devices in the Low/Rise House).


The build was completed in 2013—just in time to host a wedding for Dan and Megumi Aihara, a landscape architect and also a partner in their practice. Their newborn daughter, Aya, is the newest guest of the house. "It’s become a kind of benchmark for a series of important life events, and in many ways, the center for our larger family unit," says Dan.