Way back in 2016—long before the phrase social distancing was a part of the lexicon—George Bevan conceived of a contemporary home for a middle-aged couple with three almost-adult children in the hills of Sonoma, California. Seen through the lens of 2020, it turns out that the final design is a nearly perfect match for the many challenges the current pandemic presents.
The owners are based in Chicago but have business interests on the West Coast and an appreciation for wine that made Sonoma a natural fit for a vacation spot. They fell for a 21-acre parcel of land overlooking the town of Sonoma; the property was owned by the Sonoma Land Trust, who sold it to the couple but with a conservation easement that only allowed for 10,000 square feet of disturbed ground to protect the majestic oaks and other native vegetation.
As the principal of the architectural firm Bevan Associates, which has been based in Sonoma since 2003, Bevan understood the responsibility of constructing a new build in the midst of nature and was up to the challenge. Instead of thinking of the home as staking its claim on the property, he envisioned it as a series of separate buildings, connected by a snaking walkway, that worked around the natural bounty.
“We’re actually strategically placing things in the environment versus clearing,” Bevan explains. “It was about understanding the site where you need to have a delicate footprint, where you have to surgically go in, and how will that actually work? How will the architecture respond to that?”
Relying on a succinct group of materials—concrete, shou sugi ban wood, glass and steel accents—Bevan created one main building to house the living room, kitchen, main bedroom and bathroom, and offices, and two separate guesthouse “pods,” or freestanding 350-square-foot rooms with their own entrances. There is also a pool, a poolhouse “pod,” and an 800-square-foot garage for the husband’s vintage sports cars. The floor-to-ceiling glass windows in the public rooms in the main house and the guest pods fold open completely to allow for cross ventilation and an indoor-outdoor way of living. Bevan also chose the finishes throughout the home’s interiors, while the couple selected their furnishings in consultation with him.
Here, Bevan walks us through the process of building a hillside home for the future.
ELLE Decor: What was most important to your clients, both visually and functionally, about the house? And how did you feel when you saw the land?
George Bevan: It was always, How can one live here? It’s wooded. It’s never been built on before. I said, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to do these pods where the guests actually have to walk outside and have their own little place?” But yet be a part of the same house. And I have to hand it to the clients. They were pretty ‘eyes wide open’ because they hadn’t built before. It was sort of a joke—and they give me a hard time all the time—but they said, “You really sold us on a very simple place where we’re just placing things in the existing forest, and now we have this.” But it was based on entertaining. It was based on a casualness in the house, not being too precious about it. I actually wanted you to almost drive right past it and not see the house. And so it steps and engages the hill in certain ways so we could save certain trees; it also sits quietly nestled with arms open to the view.
ED: So the idea for these pods was driven as much by the reality of the landscape as it was by the clients?
GB: Totally. It had to be. Because of the slope and the tree placement. So to stagger them, whether vertically or horizontally, we identified where the pods needed to be given the distinct terrain.
ED: Is this common for your projects in Sonoma? That they’re built on virgin land so you have to keep ecological concerns top of mind?
GB: Sonoma is not Napa. There’s a very different personality to it—it’s a little more understated, a little more relaxed, and a little more country. And these kinds of lots are becoming available, with easements. This one had an existing deer trail. But whoever you work with, you have to be open-minded. I think a lot of people in the Sonoma area are asking to have just as much outdoor space as indoor, from a pure lifestyle standpoint. So the bedrooms here, they’re not big. The clients said, “We’re just sleeping in those, George. We want to be outside, and we’d rather put some money into the pool experience.”
ED: In some ways it reminds me of a hotel, in terms of how the spaces are divided up. Were you thinking about how people move through spaces that are secondary homes, as opposed to their main home?
GB: Exactly. Everyone should feel like they’re on vacation in this house. That covered walkway is the spine between the parking area and everything else; you can enter the main spaces or you can veer left into each of the “hotel rooms,” basically. So guests don’t have to go into the main house and be inconvenienced by anything, they can just park and walk down the main path and enter door number one if they want. And then it continues to the pool—you can grab a towel and jump in without going through any public living space at all.
ED: Tell us about the materials you chose—many of them are natural.
GB: A lot of our work uses a natural palette. And I know a lot of people are using shou sugi ban [charred wood], but these clients didn’t just plug into the trend of it. They actually were interested in the science behind it, as in, “That’s crazy, we live in the hills and we’re gonna do a wood-sided house, and what about rot and birds slamming into it and mice and everything else?” We worked with Delta Millworks out of Austin. Our sandbox was oak floors, concrete, glass, and some siding. What could we do with that? And there’s times in any project where a client comes back from somewhere or sees something, and says, “Hey, this is a crazy idea...” and you sort of have to, as a professional, guide them and remind them of some of the constraints, that this will look beautiful without adding more.
ED: How did you use the flow of the buildings to shape someone’s view of the surrounding landscape as they’re moving through this home?
GB: That should be the gift. That should be selfishly for each person to enjoy, to have these framed views and these lenses that the home can create and lead you to. Even that kitchen window—when you walk by the entry, the kitchen window pockets open. So even from the start, you arrive, you drop your bags, and you see a snippet of what’s to come. This is how we’re going to treat the view. Each person can have their own little framed view that they can enjoy during their visit.
ED: That infinity-edge pool is so dramatic. Tell me about that placement.
GB: Pools and patios are always tough on hillsides. They don’t necessarily have to be massive. This pool in particular is interesting. If you and I were standing in the living room facing out to the pool area, you can’t see it. We had a dialogue about when to introduce the pool [in the viewer’s eye level] from the living room, all the way down to the color of the plaster and the tile around it. It’s a water feature more than it is a pool: At rest, it’s a direct reflection of the changing sky, and it totally changes throughout the day.
ED: Construction-wise, what were some of the trickiest things to place and build?
GB: It’s on a hillside, and it’s virtually all one level aside from the offices. There are no more than three steps anywhere in the layout, and they’re spread out. I want you to leave saying, “That’s a flat site.” You don’t even realize when you’re going up a couple of steps here and there. You’re moving to and from places that seem relatively flat and level. And all of a sudden, it adds up to 15 or 18 steps, eight or nine feet, and it’s easy for someone to climb.
ED: We hear that one of the owners is a car aficionado?
GB: During every meeting we had, he was just waiting to cover the details of the garage. That’s all he cared about—Can we get to the garage already? They’re very sweet people. That’s his vice. And it was treated that way. If you just opened the whole garage and moved all the cars out, it would feel like a living room. It’s basically a living space for cars. It’s not a garage. Those are his babies. How it’s lit at night—he was very specific with that.
ED: It’s interesting looking at this home through the lens of 2020. Those pods are literal social distancing. And the social spaces are all indoor-outdoor with the best ventilation; you can have guests in your home and it’s as though they’re outdoors. That’s all everyone wants right now.
GB: Yeah, that’s pretty crazy you’re saying that. It’s certainly true.
ED: Do you think you’ll re-create this pod idea in the future?
GB: This was a site-specific idea that we want to feel like we’re still attached to the outside without building a house. That’s the feeling of it. But I just came from another potential job this morning on a hill nearby. And they started talking about the same idea. It’s crazy. So I let them talk. And then I said, “Well, you can drive out your driveway, go about a mile and a half, count to five, take a left, and you can see this exact project you and I are talking about.” Younger Baby Boomers, we all have this idea of people coming home. With this pod idea, you can have people show up, and every adult has their own space. And that’s in partnership with the site conditions. I think it’s great.
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