Written by Wendy Osaki
The Northern California wine country is a very special place, perfect for indoor/outdoor living. As architects, how do we appreciate its beauty but tread lightly on the land? How do we take cues from the region’s historic agrarian forms but push the envelope when creating modern residences of this time?
WDA Residential Practice Leader, Jim Westover, recently participated in a panel discussion to help celebrate the release of the book At Home in the Wine Country at the 18th annual AIASF Architecture + the City Festival. Joined by authors Heather Sandy Hebert and Chase Reynolds Ewald, and fellow architect Andrew Mann, the panel discussed these questions and more in talking shop about wine country lifestyle through the lens of architecture.
Both firm’s projects are featured in the ‘Recreation and Renewal’ chapter of the book. Our project, Big Ranch Road is a historic hay barn reimagined as an entertaining space and home gym with a modern twist. Andrew’s project, Sonoma Retreat, is an open-air dining pavilion designed to connect with the landscape.
Chase: Can you tell us about any unusual or innovative approaches you’ve taken in any recent projects, or any tried and true methods that you use to enhance the indoor/outdoor experience?
Andrew: The key thing is understanding the climate for that indoor/outdoor experience. In much of the Bay Area wine country its cool mornings and evenings and hot afternoons. It is about creating spaces that are shielded from the intensity of that sun but also open enough to allow the sun to come in low earlier and later in the day.
Jim: Continuity of materials that span from the outside to the inside help to blur those indoor/outdoor lines. We design spaces with large operable walls, basically removing a full wall, opening up greater expanses of indoor living space to the outdoor environment.
Heather: How do you envision a space that can entertain many people on an indoor/outdoor basis but also feels comfortable for a couple that’s up there on the weekend by themselves?
Jim: That was something our clients specifically asked us to address. Whether you close the barn doors or keep them open, it still feels intimate. For larger events you can place tables all the way around the concrete plinth surrounding the barn. It can easily accommodate huge gatherings or small ones.
Andrew: I always find that a big table works well as a place for both larger gatherings and can provide a level of intimacy with people just sitting at one end.
EXPERIENCING THE LAND
Chase: People want activities and destinations, like hot tubs and firepits and landscaped paths that lead you to explore the property and experience of the land. How did you incorporate this concept into your projects?
Jim: We actually relocated the barn. It was originally much closer to the main house, and a little cramped. We moved it into the field and surrounded it with vineyards. We kept it on axis with the main driveway, so it became a focal point upon entering the property.
Heather: In the book, there is a push/pull between regional vernaculars, influences and reacting to the land in a contemporary way that is still authentic. How do you think about the regional influences and then decide how they are best expressed?
Andrew: Here in Northern California, we are often influenced by the original agrarian architecture. We also consider things that are evocative about the place and are often influenced by something from another area of the country or the world that could feel appropriate to this landscape too.
Jim: I agree, it’s harkening back to that original architecture, materiality and possibly form, but recreating it in a modern way of this time.
Andrew: When taking influences, I also think we both really strive for that ah-hah moment by creating a sense of surprise or wonder or pleasure for our clients.
Heather: What are we doing on an architectural basis to respect the fragility of our landscapes – not only in blending with the land and building sustainably but ensuring resiliency to fire?
Jim: It’s a concern on every project. One of the things we like about the wine country is all the trees, but you’ve got to create a firebreak. Also, rather than doing just Type V construction, which is essentially wood frame construction, we’ve done Type V 1-hour, and Type III which is more concrete and non-combustible materials.
Andrew: We are using a proprietary system called waveGUARD on one of our projects, which sprays the outside of buildings and landscapes to prevent embers from catching fire. Another thing to consider is using non-flammable materials that are evocative of the landscape such as Corten steel. It changes over time and can create that woodland feel in terms of its darkness and color, but it won’t burn.
Andrew: I would love to hear more about your process, and what your takeaways were from writing this book.
Chase: Creating a book like this is akin to curating an art collection. There has to be a cohesiveness. In this case we were also seeking geographic diversity and a range of input from architects, designers, builders and landscape architects.
Every project we chose for the book was incredibly thoughtful regarding the comfort of the homeowner, the impact on the land and on the neighbors. There’s only so much beautiful untamed land to go around, and it’s important that the projects are done in as a responsible way as possible.
Heather: One of the takeaways for us was getting to celebrate the northern California landscape which we both love and exploring some of the issues like were doing today and when we interviewed the creatives for the book.
The main driver in choosing projects for the book was really the stories of how those spaces are used. That’s what people relate too. They pick up a book to look at the beautiful photographs, but the stories of the people who live there or the architects that created them or the soul of the place keeps bringing people back.
Chase: There is always another book to do. There are always more projects that we couldn’t include, or the landscape hasn’t matured yet. It’s such a privilege to get to do this kind of work – it’s like a dream job. We get to talk to talented people who are nice and thoughtful and interesting and creative and doing cool things in beautiful landscapes. We look forward to the next one.
Heather: What was your takeaway from your projects and the book?
Andrew: My clients found that they spent more time at their wine country home during the pandemic than they did at their house in the city. We’re now in the process of turning it into their primary residence. I feel honored in being able to help create that joy they get out of living there.
Jim: I think one of the big takeaways I had in looking through the book was from reading the stories. There were a few architects who I normally associate with a particular aesthetic but different than what I saw in the book. Then I read their story and understood their client’s design goals, and it made sense.
Our project was very much informed by our clients including how they wanted to use the building, how they live. We were also very lucky. We had clients that were completely supportive of doing something creative and interesting, which makes it fun. Doing a similar project for a different client with a different purpose and lifestyle could make it a completely different project.
Heather: Right, that’s what’s so cool about it. That’s what drives us in writing these books and there are definitely more to come!
Interested in a copy for yourself? The book is currently available here.
Chase Reynolds Ewald, Heather Sandy Hebert, Andrew Mann, Sarah Mergy, Jim Westover