Oriental Warehouse Loft

Housed in a designated San Francisco landmark from 1867, this loft formerly served as a distribution point for imported tea, rice, and silk. Now it exists as a sleek bachelor pad for a venture-capitalist client. The previously long, dark space was transformed  using an open plan and a glass wall in the master bath to pull light from the entrance into the interior.

Summerhill Residence

A very personal project, this iconoclastic vacation home built for Lee’s brother in California wine country was intended to connect inside and outside spaces. A series of three separate buildings—main house, guest house, and garage—juxtapose the stark-white and warm-wood cladding with the rolling green hills in the distance.

Jackson Street Residence

“A classic example of architectural plastic surgery,” Edmonds says. This residence in the historic Presidio Heights neighborhood offered no possibilities for expanding its façade or footprint. The result of taking the space back to the studs: a house scrubbed clean of extraneous details that balances a striking interplay of black and white. 

Building Doctors

Friday, July 29th, 2011

by Felicia Feaster
photos by Bruce Damonte

“I often think of us as architectural plastic surgeons,” quips architect Robert Edmonds. He is referring to himself and Vivian Lee, his partner at their San Francisco firm, who also happens to be his wife. Edmonds and Lee frequently find themselves taking existing buildings and re-envisioning them for their clients’ more modern tastes. “We’re really able to attack the DNA of a building and transform it,” Edmonds says.   

Their elegant solutions to preexisting buildings include a light-drenched bachelor pad in the historic Oriental Warehouse in San Francisco’s South Beach neighborhood, and their own ’50s-era San Francisco home, where a wooden-screen-wrapped façade gives it the look of a vintage View-Master. In contrast, the Summerhill Residence, one of their few ground-up projects, was built for Lee’s brother as a second home. Its series of buildings has served as a backdrop for fashion shoots, and as the cover image for the architecture book California Cool. The design of this home typifies the clean, modern lines of the signature Edmonds + Lee look.  

“I often think of ourselves as architectural plastic surgeons. We’re really able to attack the DNA of a building and transform it.”

Working as a Couple

Edmonds and Lee met at Columbia University’s architecture school, which they followed with experience at firms including Steven Holl Architects and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. They moved to San Francisco in 2005, when Lee was three months pregnant with their first child, and they had very few contacts in the city. It was, in what sounds like a bit of an understatement, “frustrating,” Edmonds says. But six years later, they find themselves sitting pretty with an enviable array of work in the pipeline. “We’ve never had so many interesting projects as we do now,” Edmonds says. They are working on a ground-up house in the city; a renovation to a home designed by former UC Berkeley architecture school dean William Wurster; a Jin Wang couture wedding-dress showroom; and the renovation of a San Mateo school for children with learning disabilities. 

With five- and one-year old boys to raise and their office and living quarters on different floors of the same modern Twin Peaks home, Edmonds and Lee are clearly close collaborators. “We try to keep a very clear separation: one is work and one is home time,” says Lee, with their one-year-old’s coos audible in  the background. Such are the best laid plans. “It’s pretty difficult to do,” Edmonds concedes. “We end up talking shop until we fall asleep.” 

The couple approaches their work with an awareness of each others' strengths. “When you decide to start an office and work together as a couple, you really have to be confident professionally and know what you are good at and what you are not good at,” Lee says. “Very seldom will we both be attacking the same portion of a project. I understand spatial relationships very well, and then I’ll give it to Rob to see if it works for larger more technical, practical issues,” Lee says. “I tend to be a little more in the project management side, in terms of running the day-to-day,” Edmonds says. 

“I hate to make it sound like such a stereotypical scenario where the male is in charge of the structure and the female is in charge of the interiors,” he says. “But it does tend to fall along those lines.”

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