The Brains Behind Billionaire Homes

When it comes to building a house for a billionaire, money isn’t a constraint but the stakes can be very high. Here, architects, including those responsible for creating homes for the likes of Bill Gates and David Geffen, talk about the challenges of bringing unrestrained visions to life.


Building a home is surprisingly similar to designing a suit. With enough time and care, and money, an architect can tailor a house expertly to fit a client’s lifestyle. According to some of the most prominent architects and designers, the craft of building a home for a billionaire comes down to listening, understanding how various elements compliment one another, and establishing a relationship with the client–regardless of the high-priced demands.


“The great gift an architect can give a project, and the client, is the sense of tailoring, detail, an awareness of posture, the comforts of a fine lining, the relaxedness of the gentle drape, the ability to create seductive openings, the taut closing and elegance,” says Diane Lewis, a New York-based architect and a professor at the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture of The Cooper Union. “Architecture has a silhouette and a cut, too. The whole project from concept to construction is an exciting unveiling revelation.”

Several architects around the country focus on this particular craft of making a couture home for the few clients who can afford it–clients like the co-founder and CEO of the Oracle Corporation, Larry Ellison. To design his Japanese imperial palace of a home in Woodside, California, Ellison selected Paul Discoe, who is known for masterfully incorporating Buddhist ideology into practical design. For architects like Discoe, a strong design philosophy is the guiding force in the process of construction from the initial blueprint to the “Welcome Home” doormat stage.

The Philosophy of Design

Enlightened by Buddhism after spending five years in China, Discoe developed an affinity for Asian design that has been prevalent in his work ever since. He now considers Asian architecture, particularly Japanese and Chinese, to be his specialties.


“It is interesting to see how much design is bound by culture,” he says. “Asian architects take Western approaches and aren’t afraid to be fresh and far out with it, to be really daring. They don’t have these pre-conceived notions of what a Western building should look like, they feel free to break from tradition. In the same way, Western architects play and experiment with Asian themes more freely.”

For Discoe it can be as simple as mixing styles and historical periods, combining the design of a teahouse and a barn. It was this philosophy that caught Ellison’s eye, as he also has an affinity for traditional Japanese architecture.

For James Cutler and his firm, Cutler Anderson Architects, nature plays a significant role in their design philosophy. “We try to understand the nature of all the components, the institution, the land, the weather, the flora, the fauna, the materials, so that we can work with them,” he says. “When you work with nature, it takes on a will of its own, its own spirit. We want to release that spirit.”

Cutler, who has been practicing for 30 years, is the architect behind Bill Gates’s residence in Medina, Washington. He worked with Peter Bohlin to bring elements of nature into the Microsoft billionaire’s home complex. In 2007, Bohlin’s firm, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, received the Design Award for Custom Housing from the AIA Housing Committee.

Whether building a home for the richest man in the world or just another billionaire on the list, Lewis says that money should never play a part in an architect’s design philosophy. “In the tradition of the maker-architect, that is an architect who deals with poetics and can conceive the spatiality detail and texture of a structure, it isn’t necessary to talk about ‘expense,'” Lewis says. “Great architectural qualities aren’t intrinsically expensive; the expense is in getting them implemented in the contemporary market-driven building industry.


Lewis infuses similar principles into her work with the future brains of the students at Cooper Union, where she is more mentor than instructor. “I must teach them to build the structure with the integrity, attention to fine detail, in a non-mercenary state of mind in order to arrive at a work of architecture; that is the expense: time, patience, and an elevated state of mind. That’s why it is called expensive.”

The Billionaire in the Home

A client’s demands and the architect’s vision must strike a perfect balance in order for the house to meet the expectations of the design. Sometimes this balance is achieved through a collaborative process between all parties, but most times, especially in building a billionaire’s home, the client has learned to trust that the architect will manage to turn their dream home into a furnished reality.

“The better the client the more creative freedom they give you,” Discoe says. And Larry Ellison was one of those clients. According to Discoe, it took fifteen minutes for Ellison to draw what he wanted on a lined piece of paper with a ballpoint pen. “He was very clear and didn’t care about the cost or the time. It was ten years from that initial drawing until the full completion of the home.”


With all of his billions and no time limit on achieving his housing goals, Ellison demanded the best. As creatively liberating as that is for an architect, the fact that so many economical limitations were thrown out the window placed more emphasis on Discoe’s job and the final product.

“There was no compromise, no cutting corners, no financial or time constraints, no pressure only to deliver the best product possible with expert craftsmanship,” Discoe says. “With these expectations, there’s no one to blame but yourself if something goes wrong.”

Fortunately nothing did go wrong. Ellison is satisfied with the home, and Discoe is currently working on a smaller project for Ellison’s property next door.

Cutler also takes his client’s expectations into careful consideration. To make them part of the process, he closely reads his clients’ written requests, and personally walks them through the property and relays his design ideas and thought process regularly. Ultimately, though, Cutler has final word on all the design decisions.

“Each family has a set of needs that they express in their written program. I’m not going to tell them how to live their lives,” Cutler says. “They give me the landscape and the budget and then I try to bring all those elements together. This is what we do and how we operate, if they think they can do my job and don’t need me, then they shouldn’t hire me.”


So far, no one has walked away. To this day, Cutler claims 100% satisfaction with his clients, including Gates. But he doesn’t talk in detail about that out of “respect for the client’s privacy.”

Peter Bohlin, who assisted Cutler with architecting the Gates home, and Ron Herman, landscape architect for the Ellison home, expressed the same concern. It is not uncommon for the high profile client to demand to have everyone involved in their housing project not speak with the press due to privacy and security concerns. In fact, a spokesperson at the architectural firm Gwathmey Siegel wouldn’t even confirm if it was responsible for Michael Dell’s home in Austin, Texas.

Sustainable Approach

One thing Cutler will go into detail about is how the Gates residence incorporates sustainable practices. Cutler Anderson Architects takes an environmentally friendly architectural approach to its projects. Cutler oversaw the use of recycled timber to construct the Gates residence.


“The land is a major client. Designing a home is about choreographing the experience of connecting with the landscape,” he says. “When you emotionally connect with the land, you fall in love with it. When people love something, they don’t want to kill it. It’s about changing attitudes, not just changing our technology.”

Discoe has been using urban logs, that have been recycled, in all major construction projects and recently designed a cardboard zendo, which is like a tent for meditation purposes, for the Burning Man, the annual creative arts festival in Nevada. He is, however, critical of the current sustainability movement.

“It’s a fun thing to talk about, but you can’t pretend to care about sustainability if you drive a car and you fly in planes,” he says. “The use of petroleum is reprehensible. While I was in Japan, I came across a small village. Everything they needed they got from a quarter-mile radius, no waste and no imports. That’s truly sustainable.”

Although sustainability now seems like a modern trend, Lewis explains that an architect’s intrinsic knowledge of nature is a centuries’ old tradition of the art of design.

“In Japan and in Nordic cultures, trees that grow on the north side of the mountain, tempered by cold wind and shade, are used for the wood to build the north side of the house, and the southern trees that grow in heat and sun are used for the south façade,” she says. “The consideration of wind and air circulation, the use of shutters, screens, pivoting and sliding walls, solar infusion, thermal insulation from thick storage walls, sunshading with bris soleil [a shading devices for controlling solar gain and adding stylish features to a building] construction walls” have all been a prevalent part of architecture and represent its inextricable connection to the environment.


These architects believe that a building shouldn’t stand apart from nature; it should complement it.

The Art of Listening

A sure way to get to an architect’s brain is through his or her ear. When coming up with the perfect, design, it’s about learning to be quiet.

“If you are patient and you listen, all the pieces–the setting, the environment, the client, the ground, the budget, the time–will tell you how exactly they will fit together,” says Discoe. “The design will become clear without having to force it.”


An architect’s inspiration comes from the almost surreal way in which the elements of design all come together, like trying on a couture suit. Buddhism, or nature, or the posture of the project, every brain has his or her own terminology to explain the inexplicable art of design.

“The posture is how the living and the site and the formality of the construction fit together in a magical appropriate way,” says Lewis. “The cost of the house should be determined from the appropriate posture of the project.”

“It’s like walking into a classroom full of children. When you ask them a question, they all raise their hands and want to yell out the answer,” Cutler says. “They all want to tell you their story. My job is to take that cacophony and turn it into music.”