Masterpiece: a work of outstanding artistry, skill or workmanship.
This definition perfectly describes the Los Altos Hills home built by Sudnya Shroff, an artist and fashion designer, and husband Nickhil Jakatdar, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
“Two hundred individual hands touched our home during the building process,” Shroff said.
Berkeley architect Fu-Tung Cheng calls the cast-concrete home a “Modernist Craftsman” – modern because of the concrete walls and large spans of glass, and craftsman because of the redwood board-and-batten siding and handcrafted detailing.
“It was conceptualized as a ‘small village’ where one dwelling supports and harmonizes with the other,” Cheng said.
The cluster of structures, totaling 7,000 square feet, includes the two-story main house, office, guest house, meditation room and Shroff’s studio. Integral to the “village” is the landscaping with its series of outdoor rooms.
Shroff was inspired by her childhood home in India, which had a courtyard surrounded by living spaces for her extended family.
“The kitchen was the heart of the house, just like it is here,” she said.
Shroff, who paints and sculpts, referred to the project as “just a bigger sculpting job.” It took 2 1 /2 years to design and 2 1/2 years to build, during which time she and her team – Cheng, Bob Dailey of RJ Dailey Construction of Los Altos and landscaper Ron Lutsko of San Francisco – worked hand in hand.
She chose concrete because “it’s the one material that accepts imperfections.” It can crack, it can discolor, but it has an innate appeal.
Cheng said that concrete basically can be anything.
“You know going in that you’re working with a sculptural material that can take any form,” he said. “This means that it’s up to the designer, artist or craftsperson to manipulate it into a form that is appropriate for the particular application.”
Take, for example, the concrete column at the entry. It has a fabric-like texture because of the muslin used for the form. Also at the entry is a celadon-colored sculpted geological wall that weeps water like a natural rock face when it rains.
Energy efficiency was built into the home’s 12-foot-high walls. They are 15 inches thick and contain a 4-inch foam vapor insulation barrier, which reduces the home’s need for heating and cooling.
Above the concrete walls, and extending to the roof- line, are conventionally framed walls clad with reclaimed lumber from redwood logs felled more than 100 years ago. (Shroff chose redwood to be harmonious with the redwoods on the property.) Deep eaves guide sunrays to a passive solar concrete wall.
The butterfly roof conceals south-facing photovoltaic roof panels, which cover 60 percent of the roof.
The second floor hall/atrium has a peaked roof where the two wings meet, serving three functions: First, it is angled for maximum solar gain to feed hydroponic heating system collectors. Second, it becomes a skylight illuminating the hallway. Third, structural “tendons,” holding the roof together add drama.
“The steel and concrete are exposed to keep the skeleton proud,” Shroff said.
When it rains, the angles, pitches and pleats of the roof collect rainwater that not only flows into cisterns, but also activates water features, one of which is a “time-lapse wall” designed to erode to reveal hidden objects.
“I love the functional play of the roofs,” Cheng said.
“We played with ceiling heights to make the interior cozy,” Shroff added. “Ceiling heights should be in proportion to the people who live there.”
Among interior highlights are elliptical circular “cutouts” throughout the house to bring in light and a cantilevered staircase with concrete treads that seem to float in mid-air and can support more than 900 pounds.
The concrete floor in Shroff’s studio is stamped with traditional Indian and Chinese blocks used for textile printing – apropos because she grew up in a family of textile manufacturers and prints fabrics for her clothing line informed by her artwork or photography.
Other floors are embedded with fossils and tiny semiprecious stones.
Bamboo flooring and cabinetry add warmth to the kitchen, which is minimalist by design and very much a chef’s dream. A central island with generous counter and storage space accommodates a Wolf gas cooktop. Food prep and cleanup areas each have farm sinks. A glass nook features a cantilevered walnut table for casual dining.
Dividing the open kitchen and glass-walled formal dining area is a deep-red concrete kitchen counter, colored by finely ground iron oxide. It was poured in place – no easy feat – then buffed to resemble terrazzo stone. It’s a repository for fresh-picked produce from the large vegetable garden at the back of the property.
“I’m a believer in growing your own food,” said Lutsko, who incorporated it into the overall design of the grounds.
Lutsko designed a pathway that wends its way around the complex “to create a walking experience to get away from buildings and immerse yourself in the garden. It’s great for children, too.”
Another “getaway” is the meditation pavilion, which Cheng calls “very spirit driven.” It looks out on a serene walled garden and features a large carved teak wall panel of Indian figures and deities done by a nearly blind craftsman who was teaching his art to his son.
“It’s a place for family members to go when they need a timeout from the stress of daily life,” Shroff said.
Speaking of family members, the couple’s three children didn’t want to move and weren’t so sure they’d like the “new” house.
“We were living in a very comfortable 3,500-square-foot home in Los Altos and loved the neighborhood. But we had no yard,” said Shroff, who felt an emotional attachment to the large jungle-like property for sale on her jogging route.
So, she and her husband bought it. When the house was completed, they told the children to give it a month and if they weren’t happy, they’d move back to their old house.
Well, they quickly settled in and, before the children could change their minds, the old house was sold.