This Net-Zero Home Is Easy on the Environment—and the Eyes

Lydia Lee
·3 min read
Photo credit: Joe Fletcher
Photo credit: Joe Fletcher

A hideaway is usually designed to allow its occupants to escape from the rest of the world. But along the rugged coast of Big Sur in California, homes are required to hide from view—a state mandate restricts any development that can be seen from the main highway, which famously snakes along the cliff’s edge. To ensure that they could build an appropriately discreet retreat in the area, a Silicon Valley couple reached out to Mary Ann Gabriel Schicketanz, of the Carmel, California–based Studio Schicketanz, who has been practicing architecture there for 35 years with a focus on sustainability. The resulting getaway is a series of indoor-outdoor spaces that integrate into their surroundings, have warmly textured interiors that complement the natural setting, and are designed to be net-zero, producing as much energy as they use. “It feels very calm here. Even if you are indoors all day, you feel like you’re outdoors,” says one of the owners. “You can watch the ocean for endless amounts of time.”

Photo credit: Joe Fletcher
Photo credit: Joe Fletcher

After coming to the area for day trips, the clients had initially thought of buying a small house in Carmel. But when they connected with Schicketanz, she told them about a rare 100-acre parcel bordering a park, just 10 minutes south of town. Schicketanz did a feasibility study and determined that by excavating into a low ridge about 500 yards from the ocean, a one-story structure could be concealed from those driving along Highway 1. The site was also surrounded by open meadow, not in a forested area that would be hard to protect from wildfires.

Photo credit: Joe Fletcher
Photo credit: Joe Fletcher

The clients took the gamble and bought the property in 2016, and Schicketanz proceeded with the plan. She designed the 5,000-square-foot retreat so that it merges with the landscape. A stone-veneered retaining wall curves into the ridge and forms the back wall of the house, and a cozy billiards room is dug into the ridge itself. Some sections of roof are planted with native grasses so that the ridge appears to continue over the top of the house.

Photo credit: Joe Fletcher
Photo credit: Joe Fletcher

For the main portion of the house, Schicketanz originally envisioned a single bar-shaped elevation. But the owners wanted more architectural interest, so the long bar became three volumes—a bedroom wing for the couple’s two college-age daughters, the great room, and the couple’s bedroom suite. Connected by glass corridors, each volume is set at a slightly different angle and takes in a sweeping view of the coast.

Photo credit: Joe Fletcher
Photo credit: Joe Fletcher

“We wondered if it would make the house feel like a hotel, but we really like it,” says one client. “The wings create a clear separation of space and give everyone their own place to retreat to.” A solar array on the roof over the great room provides enough electricity for the entire home and two electric vehicles, while a separate array is used to heat the pool.

For the interiors, the owners preferred a darker palette over one of pale neutrals. Seizing this opportunity to work with color, Schicketanz and her designers created a backsplash for the kitchen in a custom pattern of raspberry and gold tile from Bisazza that was inspired by the Mark Rothko painting White Center.

Photo credit: Joe Fletcher
Photo credit: Joe Fletcher

To ensure that the dominant piece of furniture in the great room could hold its own and complement the views, they selected slabs of dark kauri wood for the dining table, made by Riva 1920 from long-fallen specimens. They also gave some internal walls a blackened, textured treatment inspired by the traditional Japanese technique of shou sugi ban. “When you have such simple architecture,” Schicketanz says, “the proportion and surfaces become everything.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

This story originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of ELLE Decor. SUBSCRIBE

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