More than 3,000 miles away and 50 years after architecture icon Frank Gehry infused design with a hip, spare California vibe, Chuck Dobbs found a dilapidated rancher in Arden. Dobbs, also an architect, set about transforming the house into an open, contemporary space strengthened structurally and aesthetically with reimagined industrial materials.
“I call it West Coast Casual,” he says. “It’s a cultural mindset that says that trying new things and new approaches is both liberating and inspirational.”
When he bought the house in 2001, it was essentially a gut job—which was precisely what he wanted.
At just under 2,000 square feet, the house was a warren of small rooms, some of which had remained unfinished for 40 years after the original owner stopped mid-stream during the construction process.
“The house had three small bedrooms, and the public areas were divided up into three small separate rooms: living room, dining room and a kitchen,” Dobbs says.
A DIY project
First, Dobbs carved out space for a bedroom so he would have a place to sleep while he worked on the house.
Then he established a central core by combining the three public spaces into one living-dining-kitchen space, or LDK, years before open-concept living gained popularity. He also joined two tiny bedrooms into one larger master bedroom.
“As part of the opening up of the LDK, we removed the attic above these areas to have a cathedral ceiling,” he says. “To compensate for the loss of the bracing originally provided by the attic floor, we installed steel cable collar tiles.”
That is one of several industrial elements Dobbs incorporated throughout the house. Steel cables also are the hanging support for a one-of-a-kind chandelier made from a rectangular glass panel that hangs over the dining table. Mounds of broken tempered glass arranged on top of the panel diffuse spotlights stationed above the chandelier.
“We also used a line of steel cables for the divider between the up and down stair flights,” he says.
Dobbs crafted a modernist dining table, welding together an industrial-inspired base from beams. Strategically placed hockey pucks cushion the massive, plate glass top from the base. Lucite dining chairs are anchored on stainless tube bases.
In the kitchen, an island is sheathed in corrugated metal. It provides storage and space for a wine fridge. As cabinetry, Dobbs installed stock maple cupboards below the countertops. He made the uppers by building maple frames around aluminum diamond plate panels, commonly seen on fire engines and tow trucks. Slabs of concrete with rounded edges form the countertops. Overhead, there’s a pot rack made from an old wood-clad water pipe.
Bamboo floors and a ceiling made of plywood unify the living area.//Photo by Carlos Alejandro
Lofty ideas for the ceiling
In the living area, lean and spare seating—a textured woven gray sofa and a velvet chair with stainless base—is stationed in front of a slate fireplace. A glass cocktail table appears to float above a fluffy white area rug reminiscent of a cloud. Dobbs made the players on the chess board from industrial nuts and bolts.
Bamboo floors and a soaring ceiling made from 4-by-4 foot panels of plywood unify the space, another nod to West Coast style.
“We once had a friend with fairly traditional tastes look up and say, ‘When are you going to finish the ceilings?’” he recalls. “We pointed out that if you look a little closer it has a gloss finish.”
He salvaged as much as he could from the original house, repurposing wood trim and reinstalling beams from the attic in the entry. The stained glass panel in the loft came from his boyhood home in New Jersey.
The house was nearly complete when Dobbs met his wife, Madeline, who gradually put her stamp on it. She is a real estate agent who studied interior design and is skilled in staging homes.
She persuaded her husband to bump out the living room an additional three feet, giving the LDK a more spacious layout.
The couple gave up an attached garage in order to gain a casual den for watching television. An unfinished basement was reinterpreted as a guest suite with a sitting room, bedroom, bath and private entrance. It is ideal for extended visits from grown children.
“I really love how Madeline and I approach our creations from unique perspectives,” he says. “I am the throw-the-spaghetti-against-the-wall guy to see what we get. Madeline is the force that looks at what we have created and says, ‘This thing is getting stale or needs improvement.’ She then proceeds to work her creative urges and ends up with something more wonderful than before.”
Madeline also suggested refinishing dark red kitchen counters in pale cream with bold dark stripes, a fresh riff on marble graining.
“This gave the kitchen a whole new and much more radiant and light look,” he says.
It’s a pragmatic surface, too, a must for a couple who enjoy cooking together. “It feels like marble. It has that cool sensation,” Madeline says.
Dobbs designed a porch with a raised decorative concrete retaining wall and paver systems. The canopy is supported by columns made from spiral aluminum drainage pipes.//Photo by Carlos Alejandro
The porch was an addition intended to engage passing
They ordered boxes of commercial carpet squares in several colors and went to work putting down a unique pattern on the floor of an office loft. “We set them down randomly and let the design evolve,” she says.
Outdoors, the removal of a septic tank provided an opportunity for a design feature. The couple brought in tons of Pennsylvania bluestone and created a koi pond. A fire pit allows them to enjoy the outdoors in cooler months. “We do s’mores and have a really nice cocktail,” Madeline says. “It’s the perfect night.”
For the exterior of the house, Dobbs chose a standing-seam metal roof, with a 50- to 70-year life span. For the main finish on the facade, he used corrugated metal panels that are more commonly seen in commercial construction. “We thought it gave the outside a bright, sleek look,” he says.
Painted cement board panels are set in a grid pattern with exposed aluminum flashing trim. Madeline suggested adding a porch, the better to engage neighbors in a friendly community. Dobbs designed a porch with a raised decorative concrete retaining wall and paver systems. It is covered with a canopy that is supported by columns made from spiral aluminum drainage pipes.
“The upper section of the columns and the two main beams for the roof are formed with a painted rigid steel tube frame,” he says. “The porch roof is made up of stained wood timber rafters, and a translucent polycarbonate- and aluminum-framed glazing system that was developed for greenhouse applications.”
With a new facade outside and a reimagined floor plan inside, there’s no trace of the staid brick rancher Dobbs bought more than 15 years ago.
The Dobbses believe that houses, like their owners, can successfully evolve with the times.
“Just because things have always been a certain way doesn’t mean they stay that way,” Madeline says.
GET THE LOOK
Reimagine spaces. Architect Chuck Dobbs took down walls in a dated rancher in Arden to combine a cramped kitchen, dining room and living room into an open-concept space. Repurpose and reuse. The homeowner retained and recycled wood trim throughout the house. Reclaim dormant space. An unfinished basement is now a warm, welcoming and private retreat for guests. An old garage is a den. Use commercial materials in residential spaces. Aluminum truck flooring, plate glass, carpet squares and corrugated steel all found a home in the Dobbs house. Make adjustments. Deep red countertops in the kitchen absorbed light and made the area feel dark. A light, cream-colored surface makes the space brighter and more cheerful.