Projects: Residential/Homes

Bell Tea House

Oakland, CA

The home of Bonnie and Jim Bell was once your typical Berkeley hills abode. But over the past eight years, the couple has worked with KTA to introduce a Japanese sensibility to the architecture and landscaping of the house - transforming it into a beautiful standout in their Chabot Canyon neighborhood.

Approaching the Bells' residence from the sidewalk, the Eastern influences are apparent. A slate and stained wood staircase leads to front doors with rice-paper window panes; the garage door was given the same treatment. A stunning waterfall of copper cascades into a pond that's spanned by a slate bridge.

A large torii - a Japanese gate often found at the entrance to shrines - denotes passage into a soothing sanctuary of a garden, complete with a teahouse. Standing in the midst of it, visitors may feel as if they've been transported 5,000 miles away.

Although a teahouse was new to their repertoire, the Oakland firm of Komorous-Towey Architects was assigned the task of designing the 9-by-9-foot building. "The project was a labor of love for everyone concerned," said Bonnie, who added that the contractor, Bob Rugo, considers the dwelling one of the highlights of his 30-year career. (He is also responsible for work done to the home's interior and exterior.)

The teahouse is constructed of Canadian red cedar framing and white birch interior panels. For the roof, gray glazed interlocking tiles were imported from Japan. The ceiling is lined with bamboo blinds. Beneath the straw tatami mat floor (and a layer of travertine tiles) is a modern convenience: radiant heat that allows the homeowners to utilize the teahouse year round.

Shoji screens slide back to open the house on two sides and reveal views of the garden. Traditionally, the lattice screens are made with rice paper. The Bells opted for translucent fiberglass that mimics the look but offers greater durability.

It is customary for a teahouse to feature a tokonoma, or display alcove, where a scroll bearing a painting or spiritual message in calligraphy is hung. The Bells' handmade Japanese scroll, which was purchased in Okinawa, depicts a mountain scene with pine trees, fog, a stream, a bridge and family compound. For the sake of functionality, their teahouse is also outfitted with a futon, antique Japanese temple table to rest teapots and teacups on, meditation pillows, rice-paper lanterns for reading and an altar table.

The teahouse is a joy to us all day, every day," said Bonnie, "whether we're sitting in it, reading in it, praying in it, listening to music in it, or simply sitting in it looking at the garden, listening to the waterfall, observing the birds, dragonflies and butterflies, or enjoying the peaceful movement of the koi."

Their 3-year-old granddaughter may not grasp the history and significance of the Japanese teahouse, but the toddler loves it as well. "She thinks of it as her playhouse."

Copyright © 2001-2014 Komorous-Towey Architects. All rights reserved.

Jim and Bonnie Bell have created a personal sanctuary in their backyard that features a custom-built Japanese style tea house complete with water features and a koi pond. Photo: Chad Ziemendorf, The Chronicle