Building a zen retreat, an experience that shaped a lifetime

An interview with a kind soul who welcomes everyone to his home.

February 23, 2021

“A house has been something I've always dreamed of in my journey as a person — having a home that I can build and call my own.”

Hidden in Nopa is a beautiful zen-like forest retreat. Emal, after 5 years at Tesla (and 9 months of being homeless), renovated this beautiful home that reminds him of his cultural roots from Sri Lanka.

Emal’s home is called Zen Sunrise because it faces eastward; we see the sun slowly rise above the horizon with golden sun rays calming our soul.

Zen Sunrise @Panhandle Park

Could you tell us a little about the background of the house?

The story for Zen Sunrise started with a process of seeing 300 open houses. Out of exhaustion, I picked an ugly duckling home that was a major fixer-upper. When the house was officially mine, I walked in and saw the house in a very sour state with cat urine and garbage all around. As I started the process of renovation, I realized that this is an opportunity to design something that I really want to live in, design to the extent that I've always aspired to live in.

The color palette of cherry woods, gray slate stones, and lush living greenery

What was the design process like?

It was a process of incremental renovation. After picking certain features, it allowed me to eliminate some of the permutations higher up on the decision tree. I first had to make a decision about the hardwood flooring: is it going to be carpet or wood; what type of wood is it going to be; what are the species, stain, and finish of the wood. I ended up picking Hickory, a wide plank unfinished flooring, something lighter that gave an open feeling to space as opposed to a darker wood that tends to close things off. Picking hickory really forced me to think about the type of wood for the kitchen cabinets and the doors since they had to pair well with hickory.

Is there a specific feeling you wanted to evoke as you designed your home?

I wanted this feeling of... you're in a forest, in Sri Lanka, an escape from the city. When the windows and blinds are closed, you could be anywhere on the planet, and it feels more plausible that you are in a tropical environment than in a major metropolitan city. I wanted to create this strong escape. Even though we are next to Panhandle Park and the Golden Gate Park, I wanted to be living in a park-like space constantly. That was why I chose a lot of the woods, concrete, and earth tones. The three main colors in this space are cherry woods, gray slate stones, and lush living greenery.

“I wanted this feeling of... you're in a forest, in Sri Lanka, an escape from the city. If you come into Zen Sunrise, you don't realize you're in San Francisco. If the windows and blinds are closed, you could be anywhere on the planet”

There are over 70 species of plants that live in Zen Sunrise 🌱

Do you have a centerpiece you would say that defines this place, such as any specific furnishing pieces?

I think it is this dining table. Three years ago, I found the wood piece for the dining table and the kitchen island in a lumber yard called A Borka north of Petaluma. I was immediately attracted to it.  It was a cross-section of a giant tree that was branching off into two more branches. On one side of the table is the base of a tree and on the other side, it's actually the section where two branches are splitting away from each other. This wood piece tells the story of the life of the tree; the tree fell down 10 years ago, and it was aging in A Borka for all those years.

The piece was too large to bring it in from the stairwell. We had to “hire a crane”, block off traffic, and crane it through this window (I did not know you can just hire a crane like that!) The only way to get this out is to… crane it back out.

The tabletop that had to be craned into the space

While the table is very much the centerpiece, I consider the kitchen island the brain of the house. Aside from a 24 terabyte server inside that runs the internet infrastructure, it is a center of gathering as well. The making of this island was a collaboration among a cabinet maker, cement craftsman, wood craftsman, and me acting as the project manager. For the top piece, for example, I wanted to preserve as much of the wood as possible and asked for a double live edge instead of a linear cut, with one side sealed in place by cement. They were not familiar with this complex and non-standard process, and getting all those measurements is very hard and most remodels don't care about that stuff.

Initial sketches of the double live edged kitchen island

You mentioned you were deliberate in picking this couch to aid with conversations. Could you speak about your thought process behind it?

Yeah, I like having the optionality of seating. I've always liked being able to sit on the same furniture in a different way. Furniture, if arranged in a different way, can actually get people to talk with each other and facilitate good conversations. What I really love about this couch is that I can sit facing away from the projection screen and talking with people sitting at the dining table.

There are all these different furniture makers that make expensive double-sided sofas. In this case, it is actually a daybed. It’s technically not typically used as a sofa, but it seems to have worked out well.

The social sofa (which is actually a daybed)

Did your Sri Lankan background influence and inspire many of the aesthetics?

I think so, especially when I went to my mom's house, which is in Weligama in the southern part of Sri Lanka. They didn't have electricity, internet, or even telephone. Every time we had to go bathe, we would walk down to the well and bathe near the well next to the paddy fields where there were cows and other animals. You had to bathe before the sunset otherwise you couldn't see. That vibe of bathing was what I took in designing the master bathroom: creating this kind of steam shower experience. There's a skylight positioned right above the vanity; at about two or three o'clock in the afternoon, the sun shines through the skylight and illuminates the shower. When you take a steam shower in there it almost feels like you're outside, with your feet on the pebble rocks. So for me that feels like I'm almost in Sri Lanka.

The jungle from Emal’s childhood — can you spot the cow in the photo?
The outdoor shower experience of Sri Lanka inspired the skylight of the master bath

So how has living in a place that you've designed on your own feel? Has it been different from the places you've lived in before?

It's interesting because for me, Zen Sunrise seems like a place that I am a caretaker of; it's almost not my home. It's a place that belongs to more than just me. I take care of it, I improve it when I need to, otherwise, I'm here just to allow it to exist. It definitely is home to me. But it doesn't feel like home in the traditional sense. When I go home and visit my family and stay in my house that I grew up in, it's a different kind of feeling. It may also be the difficulty that I had to go through to get here. In order to be here living in this home, I went through several months of not having a home, paying the mortgage and living in my car, and kind of being homeless because I couldn't afford another place to stay temporarily. And it was very difficult.

I was working at Tesla full time and I had all my clothes in the back of my car, and I would sleep at the office some days. I had to sneak around so that security guards couldn’t see me sleeping in the parking lot, and I’d have to go in at five in the morning and take a shower in the gym before people started questioning why are you here at the office so early. It definitely changed me a lot. I escaped that experience by exercising and becoming fit and doing a lot of things as a forcing function to improve myself.

In order to be here living in this home, I went through several months of not having a home, paying the mortgage and living in my car, and kind of being homeless…

Emal, Founder @Avala.
“This house has been a supportive place during the journey as an entrepreneur. When things get stressful, I take a steam shower and it’s a new day.”

The experience of building this home really made me empathize with the community of people experiencing homelessness in a way that I didn't realize I would. I didn't necessarily experience the level of suffering or lack of access to housing as they do, but definitely on an emotional level, it brought me to a place that I didn't realize I could be brought to. When I didn't have a place to call home, I had to figure out the steps I needed to take to start operating in a functional way again. It forced me to understand that struggle more.

I didn't realize it at the time but that experience has pushed me to what I'm doing at our new startup, which is trying to provide an opportunity for people experiencing poverty and homelessness; doing it in a way that empathizes with their struggles. I would hesitate to say that there wasn't an influence from the experience I had in building this home. In a way, I think the struggle that I went through was extremely difficult, but I'm so grateful because I felt I learned so much.

Those learnings really shaped me to become a better person. Cooking dinners and sharing and opening the space up for everyone; they came from a time when I didn't have any of that. I didn't have a home that I could call my own and in a way, I'm now trying to do everything I can to give that to anyone, let it be my friends, Airbnb guests, or just strangers. I feel the negative experience had a really positive impact on my life journey. And I'm really grateful that this house kind of forced me to go through it.

Emal makes absolutely amazing vegan food and often shares them with friends

When I had left my last job, I wanted to go and travel the world. I didn't have the money to do that. Instead, Airbnb let the world travel to me. You might have friends that you see every day whom you don't see at night. But when you live with a stranger on an inverted calendar, I feel that relationship is very different and it forces me and my guests to really get to know each other on a more intimate level.  Through that experience, I met other CEOs, founders, and investors. In a way, there are these really interesting butterfly effects: the journey of getting a home, the circumstances that forced me to remodel, and the struggles that came with me may have influenced my holistic life picture.

Do you think the way you’ve designed the home affected your experience with the Airbnb guests?

A lot of people are attracted to the serene Balinese-themed space and come for a retreat. My first guest, I recall that she wanted to get shelter from what she had been experiencing and thought that going to an Airbnb will help her remove herself. The second night she was here she started crying. I asked her why and she said, “your space is so inspiring.” She told me that coming to this space was even more than what she could have imagined; it really transported her to a different place entirely. She felt so inspired, rejuvenated, and healed just by being in this space. That really opened my eyes more because I didn’t realize I could have that kind of impact on people from just the way it is designed.

“It’s not designed as a home. It’s designed as a destination.”

Any advice for anyone that’s thinking of designing or remodeling their home?

Most people remodel their homes in order to sell and make a higher ROI. I would urge everyone to remodel their home so that they can actually live in it as opposed to remodeling for someone else to live in. Within your budget, design it to the extent that re-energizes you, plays off of your own individuality, and grounds you. This space may not work for everyone. This is designed more like a retreat, a zen center, and that comes from my background as a Sri Lankan, a Buddhist, someone who likes to meditate. Anyone who’s designing a home should take the background that they carry and integrate those influences into their spaces.

When I first saw the place, all I saw was its beauty and thoughtful design. It is hard to imagine the changes that this dwelling has gone through and the growth that Emal had experienced in the process of building this home. Even harder to imagine, is that when we take a leap of faith to do something outside of our normal course in life, we come back with a kind of courage and inner power that drives us to do things we would not have imagined before.

Here are the Airbnb links in case anyone is curious to experience the tranquility of the zen forest 🌱

Zen Sunrise · Tropical Suite at Panhandle Park

Zen Sunrise · Tropical Room at Panhandle Park


This issue is put together by me, Coco, a designtrepreneur that has a heartfelt appreciation for architecture and beautiful interiors.

Let’s be friends. DM @cocobliu

“It's almost not my home. It's a place that belongs to more than just me. I am a caretaker of it.”

Originally published on Substack →
If you liked this piece, subscribe below to receive them in your inbox!