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A Sonoma Valley getaway house that is a reinterpretation of the old Spanish haciendas of California’s Mission era captured high honors in October at the biennial awards of the Redwood Empire chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Built as a retreat for Raj and Krutika Patel and their two kids, the sustainably designed home mixes old style features like an open courtyard with modern details that blur the divisions between the indoors and the outdoors — the white-walled interior and the greenery outside.

Designed by Butler Armsden Architects of San Francisco, the Glen Ellen home was one of three residential projects singled out for awards among some 33 submissions for the contest, which honors outstanding architectural projects either built on the North Coast or designed by architectural firms based on the North Coast.

The contenders represented a broad spectrum of design, from commercial developments and government buildings to schools, wineries and historical rehabilitation projects.

The top Honor Awards went to Architectural Resources Group of San Francisco for restoration of the historic Stone Cellar at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma. The firm has done many prominent restoration projects, including Cavallo Point, the inn near The Golden Gate Bridge; The Rhine House at Beringer Vineyards; Coit Tower; the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park; and the Ahwahnee Hotel, now renamed The Majestic, in Yosemite National Park.

Also singled out for an Honor Award was Jensen Architects of San Francisco for its design of the glass walled SHED in Healdsburg, a reinterpretation of the old-fashioned grange hall.

The Glen Ellen home was the only residential project to receive a second-tier Merit Award, joining the College of Marin’s new Academic Center by TLCD Architecture + Mark Cavagnero Associates of Santa Rosa, and an historic rehabilitation of the old brick studio building at San Mateo High School done by Quattrocchi Kwok of Santa Rosa.

Glenda Flaim, the lead architect on the winning Glen Ellen home, said the project was blessed and challenged by the land. While it sits on a 37-acre parcel, 34 acres are protected by The Sonoma Land Trust.

“Even though it’s a very large parcel, only a small part of the lot could be considered,” she said. The forested acreage is set deep down an unpaved road on the eastern side of Highway 12, at the foot of the Mayacamas Mountains that divide the Napa and Sonoma valleys.

Main design element

The land really was the main design element they were working with, Flaim said.

“We really wanted to preserve as many trees as possible, especially the wonderful oaks. We wanted to make sure to capitalize on the context and the nature that is so beautiful and such a presence, so even when you’re inside, you feel embraced by the trees.”

Architects also oriented the house so it is shaded by trees during the summer but not in winter. A large overhang near the pool acts as a breezeway and offers another shady refuge from the hot sun that beats down on Glen Ellen in the summer.

The Patels, whose primary home is in San Francisco, have kids aged 11 and 13 who frequently bring friends with them. They also have other family members who come for extended says, so the house needed to be spacious, versatile and flexible.

“Everyone can come. We don’t have to worry about bringing extra people. It’s designed to maximize the use of space and also make it comfortable for everyone,” said Krutika Patel, a physical therapist who said the family comes up almost every weekend, rain or shine.

They are up this weekend for Thanksgiving, spreading out the meal on a rough finished fir table custom made from recycled wood and metal and designed by Krutika. She covers it with a linen runner and place mats, and never has to worry about marring the weathered surface. The room offers views of the lush, rain-fed late autumn greenery just beyond.

Flaim and the rest of the team designed a 4,000-square-foot home with two wings, built on a C-curve around a central courtyard.

As part of the goal to make the house energy efficient, it was built with two separate wings, one of which can be closed off to save on heating and cooling when not in use.

The main living area includes an open living room, dining room and kitchen, as well as two bedrooms and two bathrooms — one bedroom sometimes doubles as a yoga room — and can function independently for the parents and children. When guests are along, the second wing can be opened to offer three more bedrooms, two more bathrooms and another large family room for big gatherings.

Other efficiencies were built into the design, including solar panels and a radiant heating and cooling system built into the ceilings rather than the floors.

Counter-intuitive

While it seems counter-intuitive because heat rises, Flaim said the ceiling system has advantages. Floor systems typically are located under hard surfaces like concrete with a lot of mass to heat. The ceiling system also can accommodate heating and cooling, while in-floor systems handle only heating and require a separate cooling system.

The home’s exterior is Alaskan yellow cedar, naturally resilient enough to withstand weathering. Flaim said they treated it with the same finishing product the National Park Service uses for its signage.

“What we were really trying to do is choose materials that can withstand being in nature without need a lot of maintenance,” she said.

Tall ceilings in the living area, ranging from 10 1/2 to 14 1/4 feet, create controlled vertical views of the trees outside. In the living space, a wall of bookshelves holds cubbies in a variety of sizes to display keepsakes and treasures, with a horizontal window slit that also captures the dense trees outside.

It’s a house designed to honor nature, something that is important to the Patels.

Fruit trees

Krutika Patel said her family spends a lot of time hiking the property, which contains an old orchard with quince, figs pears, apples and persimmons. This weekend, they will forage what is still hanging and decide what to do with the produce.

They also have a telescope for stargazing, something they can’t do in their city home, and for wildlife watching. They’ve downloaded from the Cornell Ornithology Lab an audio of bird sounds and have made a game of identifying their feathered neighbors, from a woodpecker to a great horned owl.

“We’ve set up cameras everywhere,” Patel said. “We see a deer family that comes all the time. There’s a huge mountain lion that comes and goes. We hear a ton of turkeys everywhere. We realize we’re really far away and yet so close. Being in this house is a great way to immerse ourselves in nature.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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