A conservation-minded couple built a budget-conscious home high in the Berkeley Hills, and the stunning vistas are a daily reminder of everything they’re fighting for.

Berkeley Modern Living Room Window Views
Thomas J. Story

Jasmit Singh Rangr, a Berkeley-based architect, founder of Rangr Studio, and a lecturer in architecture at the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design, is technically responsible for building his family’s stylish, minimal, cost-conscious home near the Grizzly Peak summit in the Berkeley Hills. But the behind-the-scenes mastermind who made it possible is his wife, Abigail Dillen, president of Earthjustice, a nonprofit, public interest environmental law firm. Anyone familiar with the area’s cutthroat real estate market won’t be surprised to hear that the search for a vacant, buildable lot in one of the most coveted neighborhoods in the West required Dillen to use all of the skills that make her a great lawyer: creativity, a knack for analysis and research, perseverance, and the art of persuasion.

Berkeley Modern Drone Rear Full Exterior
A drone shot of the home’s exterior demonstrates how the home was built into the slope.

Thomas J. Story

The challenge began in 2014 when the couple and their young son, Sher, moved from Manhattan to the Bay Area after Dillen was offered a promotion at Earthjustice. Dillen began working at Earthjustice back in 2000, starting in its Bozeman, Montana office, and had risen steadily through the ranks. When the opportunity to relocate to the headquarters in her home state arose, she jumped at the chance.

Berkeley Modern Open Concept Living Space
Dillen and Rangr enjoy the late afternoon light in their open concept living room and kitchen.

Thomas J. Story

“I grew up in Sacramento and went to law school here in Berkeley, so I knew the city, and I knew where I wanted to live. When I was a kid, San Francisco was the big city. It was a dream,” she says.

Berkeley Modern Drone Rear Exterior Home Detail
A rear exterior view of the home’s three levels and simple construction. 

Thomas J. Story

Dillen had a sense that the housing market would be tough upon her return, but it still came as a shock when she and Rangr were outbid by other buyers with deeper pockets again and again. That’s when they realized they needed to take a bolder approach, and build from the ground up. 

“The question was, how do we build a cheap house and make it worth something?” Dillen says. The answer? Look for the view.

Berkeley Modern Living Room Dining Room Kitchen
The streamlined, white kitchen practically disappears in the back of the great room. Two hanging speakers create surround sound with architectural simplicity. Coffee table, Noguchi. A similar blue sofa with tufted cushions can be found on Article.com. Colorful textiles warm up the sparsely furnished room.

Thomas J. Story

“First, we Google-mapped all of the vacant lots in the Berkeley Hills and researched the owners,” says Dillen. None of them were for sale, per se, but a little obstacle like that was hardly a deterrent. “We found two adjacent lots with an incredible view owned by a couple that was in the middle of a divorce. I wrote to the wife and asked to meet her when I was out in the Bay Area from New York for an Earthjustice meeting. When she drove up in a Prius, I thought, “Huh, maybe we have a shot!”

Berkeley Modern Living Room
Two iconic modern chairs, the NY folding chair in canvas and aluminum by Takeshi Nii and a Poul Kjaerholm chaise longue, are ideal spots for enjoying that magical late-day glow.

Thomas J. Story

Dillen has spent 24 years challenging fossil fuel giants to fight for renewable energy, blocking permits for coal plants, and protecting public lands. When she met with the lot owner and was making the case for why she should sell that steep sliver of land to her for its appraised value, the Earthjustice ethos came in handy.

“We were discussing our slogan, which is ‘The earth needs a good lawyer,’” Dillen says. “And I could tell that it really spoke to her. So I told her that the earth needs a good lawyer, and the earth’s lawyer needs a good spot to raise her son. And the earth’s lawyer’s husband knows how to build it.”

Berkeley Modern Minimalist White Kitchen
A closer look at the minimalist kitchen.

Thomas J. Story

Once the land was theirs, Rangr designed a 2,850-square-foot structure that heeded the area’s strict seismic and energy codes, using basic, affordable materials in inspired ways. The expansive view of the Bay Bridge, downtown San Francisco, Mount Tamalpais and the Marin Headlands from the floor-to-ceiling living room windows makes the home feel like anything but a budget construction. But the lot’s steep slope turned out to be a cost-saving win.

Berkeley Modern Living Dining Room Window Wall
The design of the main floor living space was meant to evoke the feeling of an outdoor porch, with floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. The custom table was a gift from Dillen’s parents.

Thomas J. Story

“The most expensive parts of construction are excavation and concrete. On a downslope, I basically placed the house on the land, not in the land, so we didn’t need to excavate and the concrete was minimal,” he says, “That’s great for carbon because concrete emits a lot of carbon. The less you use, the better.”

Berkeley Modern Minimalist White Kitchen
The large windows let light in.

Thomas J. Story

From the street, only the top floor and garage, framed by live oaks, are visible. The family bedrooms and Rangr’s office are on the lower two levels. White painted walls, sharp angles, a cedar plank ceiling, and warm wood floors create the feeling of boxy, architectural simplicity. With its floating bookshelves, minimal but functional kitchen, and the sophisticated and spare modern furniture, it has the sensibility of a New York loft—that’s somehow suspended in the treetops.

Berkeley Modern Walkway
Alaska yellow cedar planks were used for the home’s exterior and interior creating a continuous flow.

Thomas J. Story

The treehouse vibe is enforced by the use of rough, Alaskan Yellow Cedar planks, for both the interior—using it on the first-level ceiling and sanded smooth on the floors throughout—and for exterior siding. It creates a continuity between the spaces, and adds to Rangr’s vision to blur the barrier where inside living ends and nature begins.

The floating bookshelves, among other details, give the space a loft-like feel.

Thomas J. Story

“The whole living room was conceived as an outdoor porch, a glass box. Because it’s often chilly outside, the sun streams into the windows and warms up the glass box so we can open the door and feel like we’re living outside,” he says. “In order to do that and keep the costs down, only that patio door actually operates. The rest of the windows are fixed, so they’re half the price of operating windows. You see this is a lot of glass, but these large square panes are as-cheap-as-you-can-get glass. All of the other windows in the house are as off the shelf as you can get. That helps save money, too.”

Berkeley Modern White Bathroom Subway Tile
Simple white subway tile is consistent throughout the home’s bathrooms, keeping the palette simple and costs low.

Thomas J. Story

For the home’s four bathrooms, Rangr managed costs by choosing standard white subway tile with dark gray grout for contrast and texture and affordable chrome fixtures. And the minimal furnishings are either custom-designed and built by Rangr and his team, vintage mid-century pieces collected over the years, or treasures like the Poul Kjaerholm lounger that was a gift from one of his clients.

Berkeley Modern Bedroom
A bedroom with stunning views.

Thomas J. Story

While the hilltop location affords them a show-stopping view, it also puts them on the very edge of the wildlife interface. That means that there’s a steady stream of visitors like wild turkeys, deer, possums, and raccoons visible on Sher’s nighttime camera in the back garden. It also means that the risk of damage from earthquakes, mudslides, and wildfires is significant. Rangr built the home with damper frames and shear walls to reduce the vibrations from seismic activity. Fire-rated stucco covers most of the home’s exterior, and a sprinkler system was installed throughout. It’s a professional necessity for Dillen to be optimistic and realistic about environmental catastrophes, and that outlook extends to her home life.

Berkeley Modern Guest Bedroom Quilts
Dillen’s mother is a skilled quilter, and her work is displayed in the guest room.

Thomas J. Story

“It’s going to burn up here,” she says, matter of factly. “It’s part of why I have all of my mom’s handmade quilts out in the guest room in a stack so I can throw them all in the car and go. I’ll admit that we are worried about fire. But luckily we have the fire station right there, and we’re right on the throughway if we need to evacuate.”

Berkeley Drone View
The UC Berkeley campus and two iconic bridges are visible from the home’s high perch. 

Thomas J. Story

The risk/reward ratio of their living situation is not lost on them. And if Dillen’s life’s work has taught her anything, it’s that we all should enjoy the profound beauty of nature whenever possible, and for as long as possible. 

Looking out the window in the morning, she sees daily proof that it’s all worth fighting for. 

Berkeley Modern Homeowners Patio
Dillen and Rangr enjoy the expansive view from their minimalist patio.

Thomas J. Story

“One of the most amazing parts of being up here in the hills is that you get the most amazing view of the Marin Highlands, which is a true conservation miracle,” Dillen says, pointing to the green space around Mount Tam in the distance that’s framed by their living room windows. “A bunch of local women in the 1970s fought to protect that land, and it wouldn’t be there without them. Can you imagine the city without it? It’s a miracle. And we wake up to it every day.”