Constructed in 1909, Chemical Engine House 44 in San Francisco's Noe Valley was a watchful guardian of this once-blue-collar neighborhood in the years after the great 1906 earthquake and fire. But when lighting designer Michael Souter, principal of San Francisco–based Luminae Souter Associates, first visited the structure in 2007, in what has now become a desirable location for urban professionals with families, the building's former glory was faded. Still, despite undergoing a massive renovation that entailed extensive demolition, the firehouse's history was palpable. The building was in the process of being gutted and where Souter stood had once been the stable for the horses and buggies that would race to any alarm.

Although the building stopped functioning as a firehouse in 1959, when it was first converted to an artist's home and studio, its steel spiral staircase, brass pole, and copper and zinc doors are still intact. In 2007, Teutonic Construction, interior designer Josephine Fisher, and architect of record Garavaglia Architecture undertook the current transformation. They saw the opportunity to develop the old firehouse into a striking four-story 6,700-square-foot residence, currently on the market for a cool $5 million. Dark and cavernous, it didn't feel like a home. “We walked inside and thought it was pretty dreary,” Souter recalls. “But the developer thought we could convert it into a high-tech living space.” Souter's solution? Natural light.

The building's footprint is a long rectangle with a new elevator and dramatic staircase in the center of the layout. Souter suggested large rooftop skylights and the design team agreed. Now, sunlight streams all the way down to the first floor, bouncing and reflecting off the glass landings and brushed aluminum surfaces of the new stair.

Each story of the residence serves a different purpose: entry and family room on the ground floor; kitchen, dining, and living spaces on the second; bedrooms on the third; and a luxurious master suite on the top floor. At the center of each level is the circulation atrium. Souter wanted to create a lighting scheme with dramatic flair. Emphasizing the stair, he mounted adjustable 50W AR111 halogen lamps on the gray elevator shaft. The multiple-lamp fixtures are aimed theatrically to highlight the verticality of the space.

While the atrium certainly is the firehouse's focal point, many of the individual rooms and architectural configurations required creative detailing. For example, there was no way to discreetly illuminate the freestanding spiral staircase leading to the observation tower, where the fire hoses once were hung to dry. Instead, Souter vertically mounted 28W T5 fluorescent strips to the adjacent wall. Dimmable and outfitted with a perforated metal shield, the fixtures are glare-free but maintain an arty-edginess to complement the stair, one of the building's industrial artifacts. Where a glass bridge on the fourth floor connects the master bedroom to its bathroom, Souter installed a low-voltage track system with 35W MR16 lamps to provide general lighting, with a cable system under the footpath. At night, 20W MR16 lamps shine through the translucent surface.

The designer's hand is seen in every room: indirect backlighting, with low-voltage xenon strip fixtures, illuminates bookcases in the library; a 50–50 balance between energy-efficient fluorescents and halogens on separate controls to meet Title 24 requirements in the kitchen; and floor-recessed MR16 uplights in the entryway. “We tried to make the design as minimalist as possible—to light the different areas and artwork without cluttering up the atrium,” Souter explains. “Still, there are so many parts of the composition: different surfaces and textures, uplights, downlights, recessed fixtures, track, and natural light.” It is a complicated scheme, but each piece is integrated. And most importantly, Souter brightened the residence (day and night) but kept it energy efficient, preparing the old firehouse for another chapter in its rich history.

Project Firehouse Engine 44, San Francisco
Design Team Teutonic Construction, San Francisco (developer); Garavaglia Architecture, San Francisco (architect of record); Josephine Fisher Interior Design, San Francisco (interior designer); Luminae Souter Associates, San Francisco (lighting designer)
Photographer Reflex Imaging, San Francisco
Project Size 6,700 square feet
Project Cost $2.5 million
Lighting Cost $150,000
Manufacturers Architectural Area Lighting, CV Lighting, Delray, GE, Leucos, Lightolier, Lumascape, Sistemalux, RSA, Translite