Tour a Spacious Retreat with Sweeping Views of Sonoma Valley
Architect Neal Schwartz has a self-deprecating name for a house he designed in Sonoma: Box on a Rock. “Because we were very interested in designing the house for the site and manipulating the geometry to fit, there were these moments where you could get lost in the puzzle of it all,” says Schwartz. “At one point, I said to my team, ‘Just remember it’s a box on a rock. We can’t fidget with it so much that it no longer appears as a calm and simple structure.’” The “box,” in fact, is a spacious retreat that has been precisely designed to take full advantage of the views and provide sheltered outdoor space, while the “rock” is its structurally complex foundation of piers, which allows the house to cantilever out.
While the home has a minimalist sensibility, the design process was quite complex. The clients, Anthony Avellar and Andy Gregory, bought the steep hillside property, with its sweeping views of Sonoma Valley, in 2011. The San Francisco–based couple initially consulted another architect, who produced plans that were both uninspiring and out of their budget. They then spent time researching several prefab companies, only to be disappointed by the quality of finishes and the architectural detailing when they toured the actual units. Then they learned about Schwartz’s own Hydeaway House in Sonoma, which the architect had designed as an experiment to see if he could get the cost close to prefab while still customizing it to the site.
“We loved the simplicity of the design,” says Avellar. “When we started working with him, he really wanted us to speak to the feeling that we wanted to create. We talked about indoor-outdoor living and how we wanted to use the outdoor space as much as possible.”
As with Hydeaway House, Schwartz started with the concept of a basic box. “You let the site push and pull on it to create a new geometry that’s really tailored to it,” he says. An expansive deck overlooking views of Sonoma Valley was an essential element, as was a central courtyard. “If one is in the sun, then the other is in the shade, so you can choose between the two,” adds Schwartz, who wanted to create an ample amount of flat outdoor space that could be used in all seasons. The courtyard is also a graceful, efficient way to create a sense of privacy within a fairly small footprint; the three bedroom suites are spaced out around it, making the house feel much bigger than its 2,000 square feet.
The drive to the house is up a steep slope, so the first good look visitors have of the view is through the glass front door—a stunning and welcome surprise. After passing through that threshold, visitors step down into the tree-lined courtyard—a small transition that heightens the drama of the entrance—and then through to the main living area. From there, the valley floor spreads out beyond.
While Schwartz’ moniker describes the architecture, Avellar and Gregory’s names for the home—Sky House and the Roost, respectively—evoke what it’s like to experience the house. “There are aspects of the design that we didn’t really understand during the process,” says Avellar, “but now that we’re here, we can see that they’re really cool!”
A version of this article appeared in the February/March 2016 issue of SFC&G (San Francisco Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: Balancing Act.