The Flintstone House was born from a young architect's dreams of revolutionizing how we built homes.  Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
The Flintstone House was born from a young architect's dreams of revolutionizing how we built homes.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The Architect Who Built the Flintstone House Explains Its Origin Story

The Architect Who Built the Flintstone House Explains Its Origin Story

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It’s one of the most iconic pieces of domestic architecture in the Bay Area — the Flintstone House! You may have noticed the bright orange and purple structure while driving northbound on 280 in Hillsborough.

I first visited this place a few years ago for a Bay Curious podcast episode that remains one of their most-popular episodes of all time. But back then, the architect wasn't available. So when the chance came to tour the house with its architect, I pounced.

Here's some of our conversation, edited for coherency and aesthetic enjoyment.

NN: My name's William Nicholson, but people call me Nick.

RM: Which do you prefer?

NN: Nick. Probably.

RM: How do you feel about your creation?

NN: This was a big failure. You know, I was going to revolutionize architecture when I got out of school and I didn't. People like the places, especially once they get inside. But nobody bought them. So I felt like such a failure. But I've talked to so many people driving along (280, and they say the sight of the Flintstone House) brings a smile to your face. Now, why shouldn't a house be fun? I mean, that's fantastic. So many people drive by and at least subconsciously realize that, 'Hey, there's something other than a box!'

The current owner Florence Fang didn't come up with the nickname "Flintstone House," but she's run with it, installing all kinds of cartoonish tchotchkes inside and out.
The current owner Florence Fang didn't come up with the nickname "Flintstone House," but she's run with it, to the dismay of local officials, installing all kinds of cartoon-inspired touches inside and out.

RM: Take us back to the very first conversation you had with the original owners. What was the culture like then?

NN: They were into computer programming. I'd built the first house out in Apple Valley, Calif., and they came and went through that house. That was an era that was a little hippie. You know? Everyone was looking at accepting something new.

RM: When you said you really wanted to revolutionize architecture, what was it you had in mind?

NN: Well, I had this idea of blowing up balloons. I developed a material that was plaster with fiberglass in it. There was this machine that you could spray that on and it would hydrate at the nozzle. So you sprayed (the plaster/fiberglass mix) on these balloons and then let the air out, and you'd have this dome structure. Then I would put the electrical elements, spray it with foam and then put wire and and steel on and then gunite it, like a swimming pool.

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I came up with the original thought in Istanbul. I went to the Blue Mosque. There was hardly anybody in there at the time, so I laid down on the floor, and I looked up at the (domed) ceiling. That was the germination of the thing.

So many people drive by and at least subconsciously realize that, 'Hey, there's something other than a box!' - Flintstone House architect Nick Nicholson
So many people drive by and at least subconsciously realize that, 'Hey, there's something other than a box!' - Flintstone House architect Nick Nicholson (Polly Stryker/KQED)

RM: How many of these (homes) did you build?

NN: Four. The last one in Palm Springs.

RM: Now that one looks a little bit like an elf's home, or a hobbit's home. Does it have a nickname like the Flintstone House?

NN: Yeah. This was the Santorini, because it's kind of like the Greek island Santorini.

RM: Do you want to show me some of your favorite parts of the Flintstone House?

NN: My favorite room is this room here.

KQED's Rachael Myrow interviews Flintstone House architect Nick Nicholson as they stare upwards in the tubular lounge.
KQED's Rachael Myrow interviews Flintstone House architect Nick Nicholson as they stare upwards in the tubular lounge. (Polly Stryker/KQED)

RM: It's almost like being on the the inside of cotton candy.

NN: That's a great line I've never heard that before. May I use that?

RM: Absolutely! You know, I can't get over the fact that, if you're standing outside the house, the (280) freeway is roaring. It's really loud. But in here, you hear nothing.

NN: Yeah, right, and it saves about 30 percent on heating and cooling: a function of how thick the walls are, and the fact they don't have any seams like a square house has.

Just kind of lean back. This is very much like the feeling I had in the mosque.

RM: You've been an architect for many years now. How come only four houses of this type?

NN: Burned me out. I spent several years developing the material and everything. It became a passion. I was beating this tambourine. You know, we've only lived in boxes for about three or four thousand years.

Hundreds of thousands of years before that, we lived in soft structures. Our psychological, our cellular makeup, is that we're a little more comfortable in soft structures than we are in a box. But also, we have this tribal instinct. The reason we survive is that we follow the tribe, and so we want to live in something like the rest of the tribe lives in. The rest of the tribe lives in boxes now.

Wherever you stand or sit in the Flintstone House, you’re looking into other rooms.
Wherever you stand or sit in the Flintstone House, you’re looking into other rooms. (Brittany Hosea-Small/KQED)

RM: You're supposed to build a box!

NN: People are really afraid to be different.

RM: So you decided to build more conventional homes?

NN: No. I went into land development. I made back all the money that I lost over eight years in a year and a half.

RM: So I have to ask you about one of the many controversies surrounding this home. Some people likes the outdoor paint being a kind of neutral cream (like it was in the past). Others prefer the purple and orange. What about you?

NN: I was shocked the first time I saw it. Then I got into the fact that, hey, it's got to be fun! Anybody should be able to paint their house any color they want. Frankly, I was shocked when they nicknamed this the Flintstone House. And now it's a landmark!