RWC Locals: An Interview with Jon Jang

Photos by  Natalie Whearley . Jon Jang in front of his home/studio in downtown Redwood City.

Photos by Natalie Whearley. Jon Jang in front of his home/studio in downtown Redwood City.

Jon Jang is an established architect based in Redwood City who specializes in custom residential remodels and new construction. He is a long time bay area resident and built his home/studio in downtown Redwood City a few years ago. We recently spent an afternoon with him, took a tour of his lovely home, and chatted about everything from his work, to being in Berkeley in the 70s, to the live music scene in Redwood City.

How long have you lived in Redwood City? The Bay Area?
Except for one year I lived in Santa Rosa, I’ve lived in the Bay Area almost my entire life. I grew up in Los Gatos and went to school at UC Berkeley. Before I was 11 years old, I lived in the Central Valley. I’ve lived in Redwood City for four or five years now.

Can you tell us a little bit about your home/studio and how you designed it?
We were looking for a locale that was closer to downtown. We wanted to avoid paying rent to a landlord for an office when rents were climbing up and up during the early 2000s. That really spurred us to look for a place where we could have a home and office together. We found this, and liked that it was close to downtown. For a home office, it doesn’t feel like a home office to clients. And the price was right.

Originally, I was thinking that we would modify the old building that was here into an office, but then we realized it was in such bad shape. It gave me the chance to completely build from scratch the kind of house and office I want. So we have the office in the front and the home in the back, kind of like shopkeepers.

Is it hard to “turn off” work with your studio so close?
You know, there is that cleansing aspect of a small commute. I used to commute from San Carlos down to Seaport. By that, I mean a clean break, so you don’t wander back in, but I’m pretty good about that.

Were there certain things you knew you wanted going into building your own home?
We didn’t want a big office. In the back, we have a great room downstairs, and three bedrooms, two baths upstairs. We also have a one-bedroom unit in the back that’s on the small side.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about adding on or building a new house?
A lot of my clients are pretty sophisticated, so they know all the hoops you have to jump through these days with municipalities, or they have friends who have gone through it. Sometimes you get people who think it’s easy to get a building permit.

Sometimes you get clients who want to touch this room, touch that room, raise the roof but keep the ceiling, and so on. I have to tell them at some point it’s better to take off the old roof and put on new pre-fab trusses, because that will save you a lot of foundation work. That’s hard for some people to wrap their head around—taking off the roof completely and having a crane drop trusses down. Or it gets to the point where they’re touching everything—moving this wall and that wall—and at some point it’s better to take the house down, at least to the floor. It’s expensive to work around old framing and bring it up to code. There are a lot unknowns you find when you pull things apart, which can add to the surprises, cost wise. Sometimes clients keep adding things incrementally, and it’s really my job to say, “Well, why don’t we knock this down?”

Jon draws his plans out by hand before they are pulled into any kind of computer program.

Jon draws his plans out by hand before they are pulled into any kind of computer program.

Are there areas you specialize in?
Residential remodels, additions, and new houses. I enjoy the problem-solving aspect of working with people on their remodels and additions. It’s really fulfilling.

Do you have any tips for people thinking about hiring an architect?
Check their references and try to see some of their recent projects. Referrals are the best from friends who have good experiences with an architect. The same goes for me. I’m a little weary of people who just call me out of the phone book, and haven’t been referred. Sometimes you get calls out of the blue and they are shopping around and looking for a price. I don’t mind interviewing with them, but it takes a couple hours at least to meet them and write up a proposal.

Any tips for people on a budget?
Well, we’re happy with our Ikea kitchen. (Laughs.)

People will go on Houzz and say, “I want this or I want that.” For example, the trimless look people want these days is actually more expensive. If you want a contemporary look you would do away with the trim and the sheetrock would come just up to the window frame. So you have to be pretty precise then, or it doesn’t look right. But you don’t have to be as precise when you add trim because you can cover up the imperfections. So sure, you’re paying for a little more material with trim, but to get the contemporary look, there is more labor involved, and the tolerances are much less.

How has your neighborhood changed in the past few years?
On our block there are three houses before you hit the next street, and two of them have been redone. As far as the neighborhood, south from here, I haven’t noticed a whole lot of change, but I don’t really walk the streets. A realtor I work with a lot says this neighborhood is going to take off, but I don’t know yet. It has a lot of great, historic houses, interspersed among some bigger apartment buildings.

What do you think of all the new construction downtown?
I have kind of mixed feelings. I’m really fearful for what it’s going to do traffic wise. Not that I have a commute. [Laughs.] I’m worried a lot of traffic is going to be generated by Box and these huge apartment complexes.  I guess the thought is that maybe all these people will live here and work here, but who knows. On the other hand, I love that it’s going to create critical mass for (hopefully not too upscale) downtown, and maybe our property value. But overall, I think everyone is worried about the traffic jams.

Do you have any favorite styles of architecture that can be found around town?
I do like the old historical houses. There are some Victorians that have a lot of charm. Mt. Carmel has some great, old houses. There isn’t really a style in particular, but more that neighborhood and the quality of design put into those houses is appealing. The style I chose for this house is kind of a Berkeley brown shingle with black trim. As far as that style, I’ve only done one other one for a client. There aren’t too many around here.

The brown shingle with black trim was inspired by Bernard Maybeck designs.

The brown shingle with black trim was inspired by Bernard Maybeck designs.

So I have to ask since I went to Cal too, what was Berkeley like when you were there?
I graduated a long time ago, in ‘75. The last vestiges of the war protests were going on. It was still quite the hippy town. Everyone had long hair, including me. I’ve always loved walking through the hills in North Berkeley. There are a lot of famous homes by Bernard Maybeck that have always appealed to me.

Was it the architecture in Berkeley that inspired you to get started in your career?
When I was young, we moved around a lot until we ended up in Los Gatos. But when we were moving, we were always looking at houses to rent or buy, and I loved that. I just remember loving it. And getting really excited if a house had two stories. At some point, when I was like 10 or 11, I started drawing floor plans. So I ended up going to architecture school, not necessarily obsessed with architecture, but probably not knowing what else to do.

When I graduated, it was in a real bad economy. I applied and got into the MBA program at Berkeley. My dad didn’t like that, so he cut me off financially. He said, “You’re just going to end up just working for some big corporation.” And maybe he was right. I only lasted there six months as a result.

After that, I started as a draftsman. I did get a job with this old semi-retired guy in Woodside, John. I found him through the want ads in Berkeley or someplace. I told him I didn't know anything about working drawings, and he said, “It’s OK. I’ll teach ya!” He was great. He started me off drawing details, like window details. You have to know that stuff, it’s the nuts and bolts. I was lucky to get that job. With over a year and a half of experience there, I moved on to a busier architectural office in Portola Valley. And I’ve been doing custom residential ever since.

When did you break off and start your own firm?
Let’s see… I did that in ‘83. I didn’t start working for the older gentleman until maybe ‘77, so I had about 5 years of experience and then I got licensed. You needed to apprentice for a certain number of years before you could take the state exam. Then a friend of my parents hired me to do a remodel in Hillsborough for them. And the guy I was working for was nice enough to let me work on this side job in the office. I was amazed. And then at some point my client—he was one of these self-made men—said you should just go to work for yourself. When I told my boss I was going to do that he said, “Why would you want to do that? The job is going to run out.” I remember telling him—and that he was shocked—I can just get a job somewhere else then.” That’s always the case, right? But I didn’t have to. I have been able to stay busy since.

That was the same time we had our baby and got married. Let’s see, marriage, license, baby, it just happens all at once sometimes. It was fun. We used to live on Lincoln in Redwood City. We had two bedrooms for $500 a month. 

Jon is right at home in his studio. 

Jon is right at home in his studio. 

Are there any projects that stand out in your mind that you’re really proud of or enjoyed working on?
Well, for this house, I was the general contractor. I was building during the worst of the downturn, so I got great prices. The guy that framed this for me, Tony, was like in his 70s, but he was like the Energizer Bunny. I went to Home Depot with him and I couldn’t keep up with him! He would commute every day from Dos Palos, down by Los Baños. He is just an amazing specimen. He framed my whole house for $41,000. But I had a lot of free time then too. I couldn’t have done this and tried to run the business at the level I am now, or before the downturn. So it was fortuitous timing as far as buying the property and the building the house. When you look at what we paid, it was like $170 a square foot.

As far as projects I really love, there is one that kind of stands out in Portola Valley. It’s a shingle house on three levels. The level between the main floor and the basement fit right in with the topography. It was a somewhat sloping property, and I like how that turned out, particularly the light well that serves the basement. I designed these sloped planter walls, so they weren’t looking out at concrete retaining walls.

I think I derive my greatest satisfaction in problem solving for clients. Problem solving, meaning how do I make their floor plan better, give them some options, give the house more curb appeal. Different people have different priorities, so I’ll adapt to what they want, or I’ll make suggestions on opportunities I think they’re missing. Sometimes they take my suggestions, sometimes they don’t.

Where do you like to hang out downtown?
Part of what I love about Redwood City is the live music. I love all the venues, in addition to all the stuff the city puts on. I love the Little Fox. Every Wednesday, they have a Blues show there. (It’s all graybeards.) The place is really very charming. It’s been there forever. It has all the historical stairs and railings. They have a featured Blues artist, and regular jam players, who are really good musicians. The featured artist comes on around 10:00; we hardly stay for that though. And there’s dancing. They get the geezers out on the dance floor. (Laughs.) I hope Redwood City doesn’t become so yuppified that they would lose it; I don’t think it will.