What makes a San Francisco house a San Francisco house?

[Editor’s Note: We have a new contributing architect, Sven, and this is his first post ever. Please take a moment to read his post, and welcome Sven Lavine.]

I decided to do a little brainstorming on the factors affecting San Francisco house design. I want to steer clear of discussions of the city’s historical & stylistic influences – that’s a whole different discussion. There are universal forces which have always applied, regardless of the style of the time (or the whim of the builder) which make our houses look similar.


1. Lot size:
Most San Francisco lots are 25 feet wide by around 100 feet deep. That’s long and skinny by most standards. This results in a long linear arrangement of rooms, often loaded on a long corridor. This can result in some weird spaces and long halls, but this sort of thing is quintessential San Francisco. And it can also fuel some really creative solutions.

2. Setbacks
In SF, builders have been allowed to build houses right up to the lot lines, with no side or front yard (they do require a back yard though). The exterior identity of the house usually comes entirely from the front facade, which is usually sandwiched tightly between it’s neighbors. This is where the whole false front thing came from. And it also creates an opportunity to get creative with the facade to keep things interesting.

3. Bay windows
Bay windows have always been allowed to extend past property lines and hang out over sidewalks. There is a very specific size and shape prescribed in the code. Designers have always jumped at this opportunity to capture more floor area and views. This is why many San Francisco streetscapes are lined with a familiar rhythm of regularly shaped bays.

4. Cornices
Like bay windows, small roof overhangs have also been allowed. Designers have used this to their advantage over the years by adding interesting features to flat fronted San Francisco houses.

5. Environment
I wanted to come up with some way that the environment has shaped the vernacular, like you might see in the desert, or the mountains. but it occurred to me that unlike residents in those extreme climates, we have such a moderate climate, that we can build in whatever style we damn well please, and we have. Certain styles predominate, but if you really look, you can find (or build) just about anything here. But chances are it will still look like a San Francisco house.

-This post contributed by Sven Lavine, San Francisco architect.

9 thoughts on “What makes a San Francisco house a San Francisco house?

  1. re 5.
    Actually, I’ve been reading a lot about houses 1880-1906. And there are some mentions regarding the weather and the fog etc – even at that time.
    I have to check, but basically, it states that the indoor design of the houses, the tall ceilings and the tall double hung windows were generally maximized toward free air conditioning – aka passive cooling and passive heating.
    It also looks like some of the original marina style (the real one in the avenues) was the new SF version of those same energy concerns – altho I think it’s close to impossible to find an untouched Marina which those features still working.

    there is also the notable absence of chimney. Unlike houses elsewhere with two, three, or 8 thingies on the roof.

    Another environment aspect: there is little if any metallic ornaments on roofs (cast iron railing, cupolas etc) because of HEAVY rusting from the salty breeze and fog.

    Sven, welcome.

    1. Sophie, thanks for your additions. I’d be interested to read more about those tall ceilings and big windows – those are 2 things that make a house harder to keep warm on cooler days.

  2. well, yes. If you look at a few parcel maps and the planning code, this is a very basic, first steps interpretation of what a san francisco house is. In all honesty, if you don’t have at least a cornice, nonetheless a bay window, you may have some convincing to do on the planner for your project.

    I think more intrinsically, how does the house meet and open up to the rear yard, and what is in that yard? what are the views? how does the house meet the ground in the front, and the context to each side. How do you bring light in to such a deep lot? how do you deal with the slope? these are more interesting questions.

    1. Ryan Knock,

      Great questions indeed. Maybe Sven can address these with his next post. Hopefully, with some nice diagrams and photos, and stuff like that. ;-) Hint, hint from the ED!

  3. well..those are some relevant points for sure, but I’m not convinced they are truly unique elements of San Francisco residential architecture. But…houses in Boston and Chicago often include the first 4 characteristics..

    My points that “may” be uniquely San Francisco are:
    1. All wood siding; you won’t find much brick here.
    2. A set of stairs leading up to the main level, often over an old garage or storage space.
    3. Windows are typically double hung, wood, and never with divided lights (grids; those are very much colonial or east coast derived.
    4. Whenever you see a house on a slightly sloping street, or hill (as in the above picture) that seems to a very SF image, for the most part.

    I’m sure there are more items we can discover and talk about that make a house very SF.

  4. Hi Sven–Good information, thanks. I have a question for you that’d make a good post: What are you seeing these days in terms of the city approving garage installations in homes built before 1950? Case-by-case basis, basically? Not sure if you’ve been involved with anything of this nature lately.

  5. Eileen,

    Basically, they are case by case. Anything older than 50 years will be looked at with regard to it’s historic merit. They also may be considering the buildings relationship to other adjacent buildings. So I think it really depends on the building, and the neighborhood it’s in. Hope this helps.

  6. Sven.
    There are features that are absent from SF architecture.

    No detached garage, no side garage. It’s a combo basement+garage at best.
    No porch, sleeping porch, etc. In the best case, the landing of the front door has a something nice (not only in Victorian homes, but also in newer designs)
    No “basement” in the american way: the floor below the house with 1-2 stairs going down. and the whole “finished/not finished/sump pump”.
    No white picket fence, altho there are a few of those in GGHts, Bernal, Glen Park etc.

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