January 8, 2024
A family’s decision to update the kitchen of their 1880s Victorian home in San Francisco offered architect John Lum, AIA, founding principal, John Lum Architecture, the opportunity to add more than modern functionality and style. The project also provided a chance to consider wellness and indoor air quality while completing the space with more sustainable materials and meeting California’s current building codes.
“We always try to encourage people to be conscious of the environment,” said the architect. “Instead of tearing down or building new, restoring or reconceptualizing an old house is the greenest thing someone can do.”
The grand home featured a traditional floor plan with a triple parlor, split kitchen and odd and unused adjacent conservatory – a narrow, enclosed porch with a cold north orientation. Despite the awkward rooms, there was a lot of space with which to work, so Lum started by taking down the wall between the former kitchen and conservatory and using the whole space for the new eat-in kitchen. Additional updates and reconfigurations were made to other areas of the home.
The clients needed a kitchen that worked for their family, where they could eat and gather in a casual living environment rather than a formal plan. They wanted a warm, rich feel that recalled the high Victorian aspect of their home but was modern – just not too modern.
“It’s important to be sensitive and work within the existing volume of the house,” said Lum. “You could do a massive kitchen in this neighborhood, but is it necessary? Restraint is a quality many people don’t talk about. It’s a philosophy of sustainability.”
Fresh Air & Lots of Light
With its San Francisco location, the house relies on natural ventilation for cooling – there is no central air conditioning – so the more windows that could be added, the better. In the original structure, the windows were small, and adjacent buildings blocked some of the light.
All windows in the new sustainable and stylish kitchen were replaced with expansive casement windows, letting in enough light that no artificial source is needed during the day. The new windows are double-pane, as required in California, and the black frames against the white walls add an early-20th century Moderne feel. Complementary French doors connect the kitchen to the outdoors and a large deck.
“We wanted to get as much light into this kitchen as possible,” said Lum. “All the reflected light that comes in from the former conservatory gave the homeowners a room they now spend all their time in.”
The generous windows improve indoor air quality too, which can be an issue because today’s houses are sometimes sealed so well, moisture cannot dissipate, leading to harboring mold. Being able to easily open a window can help.
Going Au Naturel
Fulfilling the clients’ request for a warm kitchen, Lum opted for natural wood finishes. He chose walnut veneer for the cabinets, a renewable material that that is locally sourced in the U.S., making it more sustainable. The natural wood provides the only color/finish of the kitchen. The intention was to create a serene design that felt more like a library of a grand Victorian house interpreted through a modern sensibility.
“There is a certain calmness to it,” said the architect. “It’s confident. You don’t need bells and whistles.”
More With Less
In some cases, the sustainable elements of this kitchen were simply a matter of meeting California code. All lighting fixtures are high-efficiency LEDs, so they use less electricity than fluorescents, which are being phased out in California, and are cooler than incandescent light bulbs, no longer manufactured in the U.S. as of this past summer. But the use of LEDs and efficient appliances, as well as double-pane windows, was already required by California’s Title 24.
“We were just meeting code,” said Lum. “Ultimately, the bigger global picture is to try to touch the earth lightly. A lot of client concerns are about budget, but it’s just investing in the future. The whole goal is to use less resources when you are living in a house.”
This renovation reminded Lum of the benefits architects and designers bring to a project in their ability to think through the space in new ways. Clients may be able to articulate generally what they want, but they might not be able to visualize it. When Lum suggested taking down the wall between the kitchen and conservatory, a key aspect of this project, the homeowners were amazed at the idea.
“What seems so obvious is often not obvious at all to our clients,” he said.
—By Carrie Whitney
Architect: John Lum AIA, John Lum Architecture
Photographer: David Duncan Livingston
Backsplash & Countertop: Calacatta Oro Slab Natural Stone
Bar Stools: Crate & Barrel
Cabinet Hardware: Emtek, Restoration Hardware & Richelieu
Cabinets: Kenwood Cabinetry
Dining Chairs: West Elm
Faucet: Newport Brass
Hood & Stove: Wolf
Lighting: Kelly Wearstler for Circa Lighting
Refrigerator & Wine Refrigerator: Sub-Zero
Table: Restoration Hardware
Windows: Western Aluminum Picture and Casement