Award-winning tiny house in Petaluma full of surprises

It is only one room and 760 square feet.|

The top residential winner in the recent awards put on by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects is only one room and 760 square feet. But the studio/home unobtrusively nestled into the landscape in rural Petaluma makes a big statement with its small footprint.

“By turning a quiet face to the busy road, finding shelter from coastal winds and establishing friendly relations with trees, grass and sun, the architecture looks through a farmer’s eyes for materials and assembly,” writes Mary Dooley and Chris Lynch, the husband/wife architecture team who designed the house for a couple of retired graphic artists seeking a new and quieter life on a tiny farmstead where they have a small orchard, a garden and graze about 50 head of sheep they share with neighbors.

Dubbed the “Red Hill Studio,” the compact dwelling is clad in corrugated metal, making it look not so different from many of the old farm buildings dotting the North Bay countryside.

But that’s a bit of a deception. Much thought went into the placement and design of the structure, where the couple are living until they can build a more spacious main house elsewhere on the 7-acre property at the Sonoma/Marin county line near San Antonio Creek.

Empty nesters Penny Bayless and David Hale had been looking for years for a country retreat. But it was their friends, Sue and Alan Cooper, who scouted out a a property just outside Petaluma and led them to their perfect spot. The Coopers settled on a ?50-acre former dairy farm they renovated into an event space dubbed Monkey Ranch. Next door, a much smaller parcel was the sweet spot that caught the eye of Bayless and Hale.

There already was an old farmworker house on the site, but it was so rundown it was beyond rescue.

Dooley and Lynch, who together make up MAD Architecture, said the house had other problems they set out to address. It was perched on a hill facing the road so it offered no privacy, and it picked up all the noise from the road. It also had no comfortable outdoor spots to enjoy the rolling California countryside that weren’t in the path of the notorious winds that bluster through the Petaluma Gap, a wind tunnel between the coast and Highway 101.

“Even on the warmest days you get this blast,” Dooley said. They also stayed within the old building site to preserve the land.

“Rather than build a new place on land that hadn’t been disturbed we tore down the old house and built a new studio in the same spot,” she added.

The compact house they built in its place faces the hillside, offering a sense of privacy, beautiful views and a protected patio.

The house sits above a garage of board formed concrete that is set into the slope, with a side stairway leading to the main entry off a semicircular patio. A metal roof extends down over the patio and the entry side asymmetrically, like a a cap.

The architects created a feeling of spaciousness with a high ceiling that is 16 feet at the peak, a completely open living area that incorporates everything into one space.

The kitchen and bathroom were set on the north end, leaving the rest of the space “open for flexible uses,” Dooley said. The couple sleep on a wall bed in the dining area that they can lift up and out of the way when guests come over. Whitewashed birch plywood walls and big windows that look out to oak trees and a moss-covered chicken coop, add to the warm but airy openness.

Bayless said she and her husband love watching the “waning light” through the windows.

“We call it ‘the golden hour,’ that time just before sunset when everything turns gold,” she said.

The house is set within a stand of oak trees, and care was taken to preserve all of them. Rather than “clean up” the property by getting rid of the old chicken coop, they chose to keep it, along with a rusty water tank, preserving the old ranch look of the land.

The hallmark of the design is its sensitivity to the landscape, an ethos that is at the heart of MAD’s work.

When asked to describe their design philosophy, Dooley said, “Let the design unfold and follow inspiration heartily. Listen well to clients and translate this into the language of the site, which is of supreme importance to our work. Enjoy the process and the people along the way.”

Dooley said they’re working with the couple to build a larger main house, set into a bowl in the hillside, even more protected from the wind and road noise. Meanwhile, Bayless and Hale are adjusting to living in a compact space.

“We had a little boy come and visit. He looked around and said, ‘Wow. This is great. Where’s the rest of it?” Bayless laughed. “But most people’s reaction is, ‘Why would you need anything else?’?”

She said the main reason they’re building a bigger house is so their son and his wife and other friends can come to visit.

MAD was recognized with the top Honor Award for the Red Hill Studio during the biennial awards put on by the Redwood Empire Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Signum Architecture in St. Helena also took the top honor for their design of Melka Winery along the Silverado Trail. TLCD Architecture in Santa Rosa also was singled out for an Honor Award for its unbuilt plans for the “Pavilion at 3 North,” a re-imagining of a former fruit packing plant in downtown Healdsburg.

MAD also received a Citation Award for its design of Brewster’s Beer Garden along the Petaluma River. The firm’s design of Keller Court Commons, an eight-home pocket neighborhood on Petaluma’s west side, was recently honored with the Gold Nugget Grand Award given by the Pacific Coast Builders Conference.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at

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