Stein had two careers, each built around a dream.
His first career, in California, was devoted to designing a prototype low-cost, quickly built, yet elegant, tract house. Though small, the house would seem spacious because of walls of windows, clever floor plans and a garden setting; his preferred material was concrete.
His second career, in India, revolved around his dream of preserving Kashmir's threatened mountainous ecosystem by designing sustainable resorts with, as he told one interviewer, "the naive idea that tourism is based on the beauty of an area and therefore it couldn't afford to have it destroyed."
Many of Stein's houses are V- or U-plans, with living and sleeping areas on either side of a courtyard. A wall of cabinetry often greets people who enter a Stein home, providing access in one direction to the bedrooms, in the other to the public space. "It allows people to come and go through the front door without disturbing what was going on," said Nancy Ginzton, who grew up in a home Stein designed for her parents. Her father was Edward Ginzton, an engineer who became CEO of Varian Associates, an international high-tech firm with headquarters in Palo Alto. Although Edward Ginzton was among the better-heeled clients Stein designed for, and the house was considerably larger, it followed the same design principles: Stein designed a simple house of concrete block and mahogany paneling in Los Altos Hills. This home, however, had bedrooms for four children, a horse paddock and badminton courts, and an adjoining house for Edward Ginzton's parents. Edward Ginzton and his wife lived there until they died.
Royston's landscaping is as important to the experience as the houses themselves. Stein regarded gardens as "the chief opportunity to achieve some measure of poetry and beauty in low-cost housing." Every room opens onto a functionally equivalent garden: children's rooms onto play spaces, adults' rooms onto sitting areas, the kitchen onto a dining patio.
Kay and Bill Parker's small Stein home, on a sloping site in San Rafael, tucks a carport beneath the living area, with steps leading from car to a hidden hillside courtyard that opens onto a the glass-walled living space. Philippine mahogany siding and a brick fireplace give warmth to the interior.
Economy, compactness and lack of pretension were always key. "In those days," Stein wrote, "though you might have had considerable means, in the bay region one tended to maintain a quality of voluntary simplicity."
Higgins loves the Stein house but understands why Stein never succeeded in mass producing it. Why didn't Stein's dream of doing these as tracts happen? "You need someone like an Eichler to build your designs, and I don't think Joe Stein was an Eichler kind of guy."
"As a businessman," Ethan Stein said of his father, "he was helpless."