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  • The Ron and Chelle McDonell home in Sebastopol designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects features include careful siting, generous natural ventilation, radiant slab heating, high-efficiency dual space/water heating, high-performance glazing local and recycled building materials. The entire site is organized as a series of stepped levels with architectural concrete retaining walls leading from the street below to a rear courtyard. The garage is at street level and recessed into the hill side. The next level is a vegetable garden which is a step below the main front yard so that it does not interfere with the views from the house. Along the south edge of the lot, an architectural concrete stair leads up the slope from the sidewalk to the main entrance tucked away at the side of the house. Located on the footprint of the disassembled cottage at the rear of the lot, the location of the new house offers shade, privacy and views. Like the fire stations familiar to the owners, the house is an efficient design composed of sleeping rooms upstairs, service spaces (kitchen, bath, laundry) at the rear and a large open loft living space below. The simple two-story bar house across the rear of the lot created a shady rear patio and a sunny front yard which offered alternatives for outdoor living in the northern California climate. The living areas are enclosed by a ribbon of full height, high performance aluminum windows. The central stair wraps around a freestanding fireplace and occupies a two-story high volume at the rear of the house. Two levels of floor-to-ceiling windows behind the stair open the living spaces to the rear patio and provide a dramatic view of a mature Bay tree.

The most winning residential designs along the North Coast have one notable thing in common — they're strikingly unpretentious.

Unpretentious does not have to mean unattractive, a fact evident in the homes singled out for honors in the recent Design Awards by the Redwood Empire chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Judges selected homes that were simple yet distinctive, designed to make smart use of space with precise and measured use of materials and details. They are also not lavishly large or expensive. In fact, at least two of the three top picks were built for less than $200 a square foot, half of what one might typically pay for a custom home.

"For so many years we were building these McMansions that were so big. Now a lot of people are realizing they don't need that much space," said San Francisco architect Nick Noyes, whose modern, barn-style home set onto a saddle on the southwest side of Fitch Mountain in Healdsburg received a Merit Award in the Custom Residential category.

Richard Stacy, whose Sebastopol, loft-style home designed for a couple with growing kids also recived a Merit Award, said, "You never know whether a humble character is going to resonate with anyone, but apparently it did."

Both were just one step below the top Honor Award, which, in the Custom Residential category, went to a surprising 1,1000-square-foot cabin built as a getaway home in the Hopland area for two couples.

Architects Grygoriy Ladigin, Casper Mork-Ulnes and Andreas Tingulstad of SFOSL, a firm with offices in Oslo and San Francisco, designed a vacation home that is minimalist even by Scandinavian tastes. To capture views without disturbing the shallow root structure of oak trees on the 16-acre site, the architects created a house with a series of rectangular spokes lifted up onto piers that extend out among the trees to capture views. To keep within a $200,000 budget, the unadorned interior surfaces are unfinished plywood and strand board.

The judges for this year's awards, held in October in Santa Rosa, included Michael Palladino of Richard Meier and Partners in L.A., who collaborated on distinctive projects like the Getty Center; Mary Griffin of Turnbull Griffin Haesloop Architects in San Francisco and a fellow of the America Institute of Architects; architect and judge Julie Snow of Minneapolis and Santa Rosa Mayor Ernesto Olivares.

The panel praised Noyes' Fitch Mountain home for its "simple forms, elegantly composed."

The house is comprised of several wings wrapping around a central courtyard shaded by mature Chinese Pistache trees. It evokes the idea of a village of buildings around a town square — not unlike Healdsburg below. The series of wings, connected by enclosed connectors similar to breezeways, break down the scale of the construction so that 4,000 square feet doesn't look so imposing on the land.

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