Palo Alto Oak Tree House

In downtown Palo Alto, the clients, recent empty-nesters planning ahead to retirement, hoped to downsize and simplify in the design of their new home. When the clients purchased the property, an old wooden fence across the front yard and the original house closed off the site from the street. Behind this rough and aged presentation, however, was an urban oasis of lush vegetation throughout the deep lot. This sense of discovery served as the original inspiration for the design of the house.

The house is sited quietly behind the large heritage oak tree with its canopy stretching across the generously sized front yard. After passing under the canopy of the oak tree, the clients and guests are lead through a series of courtyards and view gardens that weave through the undulating footprint of the building. Each space is paired with its own landscape moment designed by Bernard Trainor & Associates, allowing the architecture to disappear and the landscape to flow into and engage with the building.

The structure floats on stilts of piers, allowing the building to participate in dialogue with the trees on site while protecting the root areas. The main floor plate projects beyond the building envelope and dissolves into balconies to blur the sense of indoor/outdoor while at the same time lifting the building up from the ground plane. Even the driveway is constructed out of floating concrete structural slabs supported on piers to minimize the impact on the tree.

In an attached apartment, board-formed concrete walls serve as organizing elements which separate private from public areas as well as the main dwelling from the apartment. The proximity of the downtown area of Palo Alto by foot and bike was fundamental to the clients’ decision to purchase this lot, and their belief in building to a higher density in this urban setting lead to the inclusion of the apartment.


Contractor: Baywest Builders
Landscape Architect: Bernard Trainor & Associates
Structural Engineer: Strandberg Engineering
Energy Consultant: Bright Green Strategies
Geotechnical Engineer: Romig Engineering
Arborist: Urban Tree Management
Civil Engineer: BKF Engineers