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Striving to maintain a sense of personal history while meeting the needs of a 21st-century family, architect Donald Ruthroff, AIA, combined time-tested and new elements to create a modern version of the client’s childhood home. “The clean lines and strong street presence are clearly indicative of contemporary design,” Ruthroff says. “But we also worked to make it feel warm by incorporating natural wood elements that connect the structure to the outdoors,” including a magnolia tree planted by the client’s parents.
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Photo: Kathryn McDonald Photography
This article first appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Pro Builder.

Every custom home has a story. Luminosa, in Palo Alto, Calif., is no exception. Built on the site of the client’s boyhood home, the design borrows from that past while establishing a modern future for the client and his family, while also applying lessons in creative ways to manage restrictive municipal zoning requirements and daylight access rules, with sometimes surprising results.

The heart of the 5,834-square-foot, three-level home is a central atrium—a throwback to smaller houses desperate for natural light. “I think this home makes the case that using an atrium to provide a source of light and connection to the outdoors is incredibly important,” says architect Donald Ruthroff, AIA, principal at Dahlin Architecture | Planning | Interiors, in Pleasanton, Calif. “I would argue that it brings a sort of magic to Luminosa.”


Historically criticized by some as wasted space for unimportant uses, according to Ruthroff, the case for an atrium in this design was made more compelling by Luminosa’s generous square footage. And any doubts about the atrium’s usefulness dissipate when you consider its multiple uses as a yoga studio, a second dining area for large parties, and a quiet retreat with a connection to nature, as well as its access to the entry hall, a full bath, and a private guest suite (see floor plan, below). “It reminded and challenged me to bring the most light inside any home within a client’s budget,” Ruthroff says.

The atrium also enabled the home to meet strict land-use regulations without sacrificing other space. “The fact that we could have a space enclosed on four sides and yet not count it in the lot coverage made it a huge win for us,” he says.

Contemporary Style With Plenty of Opportunities for Outdoor Living

The rest of the home follows suit, with a rich combination of glass and wood—inside and out—that lengthens sight lines, shares light, and provides visual warmth to a decidedly contemporary style.

“By using various woods and colors, you get a contemporary home that feels welcoming and comfortable,” Ruthroff says. “The spaces are grand without being large, and there is a sense of space and expansiveness because of how the home is connected to the outside.”

Luminosa custom home floor plans
The three-story plan offers a wide-open basement for an art studio and fabrication operation, an efficient ground level of primarily public spaces, and a top story for bedrooms and another home office.

The project—which took seven years to complete from the first meeting to move-in last spring—also reminded Ruthroff of the value of listening to his clients. Well known as an architect to some of the largest-volume production builders in the country, Dahlin nevertheless takes on custom clients now and then—quite a different animal from corporate production builder types.

“Custom clients typically don’t know what to ask for, so you have to be like Sherlock Holmes trying to solve a mystery,” he says. “Luminosa is an example of how, by listening to each other, successful design is always the result. We wanted the homeowners to instantly feel at home, and I think we’ve achieved that.”

Luminosa custom home rear elevation with pool

“We always work to create purposeful spaces indoors and out,” architect Donald Ruthroff says. “Each area is created to serve its purpose, but also to work with the others to create the most opportunity from a smallish yard.” A gathering space from the great room (above) provides casual seating, dining, and cooking.

Luminosa custom home casita and waterfall into pool

The “She Shed,” with its deep roof overhang and an eye-catching water feature (above), follows the main home’s design cues, with abundant glass bringing natural light into a home office. The home’s open-air, green-walled atrium is not only a retreat, exercise, and entertainment space, but floods the entry hall and kitchen (below) with natural light. Perhaps more importantly, it was considered outdoor space by city code, allowing for more conditioned square footage than would normally be approved.

Luminosa custom home atrium outdoor living space

Luminosa custom home kitchen with view to atrium

Like the entry hall (below, top), the second-level stair hall (below, bottom) is flooded with natural light, reducing the need for artificial lighting during the day. “Windows perform so well these days that more glass isn’t the burden it used to be on the cooling load,” he adds.

Luminosa custom home entry hall

Luminosa custom home stairway filled with natural light

Luminosa custom home glass and timber staircase

The owner's suite (below) features a private outdoor deck and expansive opening for views and light, while the bright, airy primary bathroom offers privacy and openness in equal measure.

Luminosa custom home owner's suite opening to private deck

Luminosa custom home primary bathroom