Wing House Residence by modern architect Davide Giannella of Acadia Architecture. Single family modern home with extensive landscaping and an outdoor pool in the hills of Saratoga, California.

European-inspired modern architecture winning California tech community

May 14, 2024

Today, we sat down with Davide Giannella, AIA, the founder of Acadia Architecture in Los Gatos, California. Davide successfully navigated the ever-evolving design preferences of the tech-focused enclave south of San Francisco. Acadia's pivotal design concept of simple joy living, inspired by Davide's Italian roots, draws clients from all across the Bay Area.

Modern architect Davide Giannella likes to have wooden architectural models created for his projects. Such models help convey design ideas in a way that sketches, computer-generated images, or 2-D representations can't. Davide in the Acadia Architecture offices in Los Gatos, California.

How did your journey in architecture begin? 

It was not straightforward. During my teenage years, I enjoyed sketching cars and I still do it for fun. I wanted to attend a school of industrial design. I grew up in Latina, a small city just outside of Rome, and the only university nearby was in Rome. Through car magazines, I learned that most Italian car designers were originally architects. I thought I could start with architecture and then switch to industrial design. But honestly, it took less than a year for me to fall in love with architecture. I realized that architecture was more permanent, and with deeper impact. Car design moves in and out of fashion quickly so I stuck with architecture without losing the pleasure of looking at cars. 

Did you know you would move to the United States to practice architecture?

About a year after finishing architecture, I moved to California to be with my dad. As a young architect, I hoped to join one of the large firms that specialize in urban planning. I was fortunate enough to get interviews, but being new to the country, I was not as familiar with the specific regulations of the California building code, which proved to be a significant barrier.

Eventually, I landed a job with a small firm in Palo Alto led by a super-talented architect. He was a builder before pivoting to architecture, so his business approach was very hands-on. I was involved in every aspect of the project, from dealing with clients, taking measurements of the site, obtaining building permits, drafting, designing, to solving day-to-day problems.

Years later—at a much larger firm—I realized how lucky I was to have the kind of start that I did. In a larger firm, your work is more compartmentalized, you have a limited subset of tasks and you are not exposed nearly to as many things as I was previously. 

When did you realize you wanted to specialize in residential architecture?

I was open to everything, if someone asked me to design a church, I would do it — I love the challenge of finding the right expression of architecture for a given project rather than focusing on a particular area. I ended up focusing on residential because it's easier to control than a larger commercial project where you need a full team around you at all times.

Channing Ave modern residence in Palo Alto, CA by Davide Giannella, AIA, of Acadia Architecture.

You work across many municipalities in the Bay Area, from Palo Alto to Saratoga, to Los Gatos. How do you navigate their specific building codes and regulations?

I feel that sentiment 99% of the time. The building codes in these cities are often driven by visual privacy and they often clash with the homeowner's desire for a taller home with a second floor. 

For example, in Mountain View, you may not be allowed to have a house where you can look into your neighbor's backyard, or you may not be permitted to have a terrace because the noise might bother your neighbors. So almost always these Bay Area cities will have public reviews involving the neighbors from adjacent properties and you have to erect story poles to give an idea of the volume of the building you're designing.

People are invited to attend this public hearing where they can express their concerns about your design, the height, or the solar shadow that the building would cast onto their property. I have to do studies to illustrate what neighbors would be looking at to make sure we're not impeding on the privacy of adjacent lots. That's one of the main building code challenges — the tension between the homeowners, who desire houses with usable rooftops or balconies, and the threat of lawsuits from neighbors. 

Is every Bay Area city so stringent?

Some less affluent municipalities like Sunnyvale or San Jose have more reasonable requirements and prefer people to live closer to one another. It makes for design options that are much richer and you can be more creative. 

I often have to draw my building with the neighbors' homes included in the architectural drawing and present it for public review. People can make comments about the proportionality. The design has to respect something called a daylight plane, a virtual plane within which the building has to fit so that it doesn't cast too much shadow on the adjacent property. Architects have to design the building volume within this superimposed triangle, meaning the second floor often gets smaller. 

Rochin Terrace Residence with large format wall art. Architecture and interior design by Acadia Architecture.

You frequently speak about human-scale architecture and your reservations about expressing modern architecture as white rectangular boxes. What is driving that?

Here in the United States real estate plays a big role in shaping our urban landscape. Years ago, your house had to be stately, symmetrical, important, classical, and hopefully with some European influence, perhaps Spanish or Italian. 

In the last 10 years, things have changed and people are embracing more modern designs. Builders who previously built classical designs are now doing modern, eliminating pitched roofs in favor of flat roofs. They make an angular box, and to make it warm they add some wood siding and large openings in the corner. That's a formula you see in a lot of new homes. 

But in reality, architecture does not always have a prescribed, specific shape. I'm always inspired by Italy where all these older urban settings had to negotiate the hilly topography and so naturally they had to be developed in a more irregular shape, more organic shape around hills and narrow spaces. Understanding this constraint is critical. Imagine you are in a small town in Tuscany and you enter a plaza, look back, and to your right, there's a facade of a church. You turn and enter an alley, and suddenly this narrow passageway becomes wide and creates a piazza for a city hall. From the top, you may see spaces radiating one from another, but not in a regular orthogonal grid, because the topography wouldn't even allow for that. That organic fabric gives you the experience of surprise, discovery, and the unexpected. I always liked that.

So your early discussions with clients about the house are more conceptual? 

The conversation starts with the location, family, preferred views, and sun exposure — all of that is part of a plan. 

Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps the most known architect of all time, once said the house starts like a flower, and then it expands organically. The exterior is almost a derivative of the floor plan. You don't have a certain style you want to impose on it. 

I always try to explain to owners who are looking for a certain facade or front elevation why I start with the floor plan, the interior, and how the light comes through. These iterations give us a path to the final output, I don't even know yet what the building is going to look like. 

The human scale, at least in my method, is defined by the heart of the house. If you have a house that is highly complex, open, and irregular, it lets the occupants choose their own paths rather than having a hallway that requires everyone to walk back where they came from in a linear fashion. When you can choose your path, you have a richer spatial experience. That's what's informing the house ultimately. It's not just a box that protects you from the rain.

The Wing House project in Saratoga by architect Davide Giannella features flush baseboards and concealed flush-with-the-wall Dorsis Fortius doors.

How do you help your clients navigate the sometimes frustrating process of countless decisions and surprises during the design, permitting, and build stages?

I struggle with that every day. When I meet my clients for the first time, it's a scenario when they choose me and I also choose them. I encounter people who are anxious about every decision and maybe we are not going to be good partners together. All parties need a big buffer of patience to start with because we'll have unforeseen problems: the drawings will never be perfect, and there might be issues flagged by the structural engineer, or the general contractor. I've seen a small problem becoming a huge problem for some people and a big problem not being a challenge for other people — it's based on your character and experiences.

I'm happy when I get to work with clients who have done at least a remodel. They understand that everything takes longer, costs more than what everybody anticipated initially, and there will be expensive surprises once you open the walls or dig. 

Even when my clients see the new house framed and we walk through the space, I tell them they are not even close to living in the house. We still have decisions to make about the backsplash, cabinets, or windows. I try to be realistic with clients. 

Do you prefer clients who are more involved or those who leave everything to you?

I prefer the happy medium. I love working with clients who are emotionally invested in the design and building process. On the other hand, I couldn't work with clients who brought their finished designs and tried to turn me into a drafting engineer.

I don't need a floor plan diagram from you but I do need to learn quite a bit about your family, how you live, what brings you joy, which houses you lived in, where you traveled, what you fell in love with, certain hotel elements or settings you enjoy. Is there something you want to bring to your home from your upbringing? It could be some local materials or colors to use as an accent in the interior, I love doing this type of thing, it makes each house different from one another.

Is there something that’s unique about the clients who engage you?

Almost all my clients here in the Bay Area are engineers. They are very analytical and capable of expressing their needs clearly: they have thoroughly vetted lists of must-haves and nice-to-haves. Some even have a deep interest in design and architecture and may come to me with their sketches and it's always fun to review those. But ultimately, if they hire an architect, they should let the architect lead and draw the basic layout.

Architect Davide Ginnella carefully manipulated mass and void to maximize usable square footage at the Rochin Terrace Residence without imposing on neighboring homes.

What design resources do you go to for inspiration?

I don't read architectural magazines as much as I used to but one of the best magazines was Progressive Architecture. I have a few classic books from my college days I go back to sometimes. One of them is a very old classic called Space, Time and Architecture by Sigfried Giedion. It talks about the work methods of European masters at the turn of the century, rather than the actual buildings they designed.

How do you resolve the conflict between preserving the site and evolving the site?

In Europe, where the urban fabric is historical, it's almost easier to build something very modern rather than trying to recreate the style that was modern centuries ago. You are better off with a visible intervention than a forgery which tries to trick people into believing that something new is old. However, our job as architects is to respect the site, the scale, the proportion, and the intention in that urban setting. 

In the United States people tend to take a more literal approach to historical preservation, either you cannot do anything or it has to blend in a lot. But it begs a question: What context are you trying to connect to? Here we work with larger building lots that provide quite a bit of separation between structures as opposed to Europe where you look directly at your neighbor's window and buildings are very much interconnected. 

Climate change and the energy performance of new homes are hotly debated subjects. Do these topics come up in conversations with your clients?

It's coming up more and more. In Silicon Valley where I work technology is everything. My clients frequently ask me about energy-efficient heat pumps they'd like to install but I see these technologies – like photovoltaics, radiant heating and cooling, or triple pane windows – almost as accessories to the house.

One of the core design principles for the team around Acadia Architecture is that we should always start with the basics. A pure passive solar home is rare but we can still design a house that is sensitive to the environment. In many of my single-story designs or remodels I have clerestory windows, those rectangular windows tucked right under the roofline. As soon as the house gets hot in the summer, you can open these windows with a remote or home automation system, letting the hot air escape naturally. You can further improve that with a ceiling fan pushing the air up.

I limit large expanses of glass facing west because—especially during California winters—the room might get super hot due to solar gains. That's where overhangs are crucial, as well as your landscaping, and trees you plant to shade the house. These basic strategies give you a fantastic starting point to avoid wasting energy. 

In most Bay Area cities we cannot use gas anymore so new homes are completely electric. California requires that all residential construction projects have solar photovoltaic panels and many people switched to electric cars so that helps immediately. 

I advocate for thoughtful energy-efficient design in all of my projects. Local building codes have adopted higher building energy efficiency standards too in recent years so it all comes together for the owners, and by extension all of us.

Angelbau's modern interior frameless doors are frequently featured in Acadia Architecture projects. We enjoy collaborating with modern architects and clients who challenge us in our quest to create beautifully crafted spaces.

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