Sebastopol home undergoes award-winning makeover

Dubbed Orchard House, the residence was built on the foundation of an older 1980s house.|

There are common design tricks to make small spaces appear bigger, from open-beam ceilings and higher-pitched roofs to big windows and glass doors that let in the sun. Open floor plans with fewer walls, doors and narrow hallways also trick the eye into perceiving spaciousness.

But San Francisco Architect Cary Bernstein’s re-imagining of a dated 1980s home in Sebastopol drew on more than illusion to enlarge the living area. She dug into overlooked nooks and crannies to carve out more space without adding to the basic footprint.

The house was a weekend home for a couple with three children who also wanted room for overnight guests. The original two-bedroom, two-bath dwelling was a dark warren with multiple roof lines that failed to capitalize on the spectacular views. Bernstein hunted for square footage and turned up space for another bedroom, a bathroom, closets, a pantry, a laundry room, a loft, a mudroom and a family room using the existing foundation, with no magic required.

Reclaiming wasted space was just one of the design triumphs of “Orchard House,” so named because of its sweet setting beside what was left of an antique apple orchard, a common part of the landscape back when western Sonoma County was apple country.

The long-gabled house with dark cedar board and batten siding evokes the many farm buildings that still dot the countryside. It nestles easily and unobtrusively within the 3-acre property. But inside it is bright and contemporary and maximizes those inviting views. A wall of glass doors in the combined living and dining rooms frames a panorama that captures Mount St. Helena in the far distance.

The project earned Bernstein a Merit Award in the recent American Institute of Architects Redwood Empire 2020 Design Awards.

The biennial awards honor exceptional architectural design along the North Coast. There are three categories: Honor, Merit and Citation awards.

Capturing top honors in the residential category was Skyfall at The Sea Ranch, designed by Turnbull Griffin Haesloop Architects of Berkeley, and The Sonoma Residence, or weeHouse, a 640-square-foot, high-end modular home on Sonoma Mountain designed by Alchemy of St. Paul, Minnesota. (Both projects have been featured in The Press Democrat.)

Mork Ulnes Architects of San Francisco received a Merit Award for a concrete home designed for a family of five and set on a hillside on a remote 18-acre property in Sonoma County. The firm also received a Citation Award for The Triple Barn House, created for a chef and her husband, that also borrows from agrarian forms in the rural Sonoma County landscape.

Design challenge

Creative reuse of existing structures or foundations is the way of the future, for both financial and ecological reasons, Bernstein said. With it, homeowners can save money while also using fewer new materials and minimizing further disturbance of the land. For the Orchard House renovation, Bernstein employed all of the existing foundation, slab and subfloor, as well as the existing roof and walls in the garage and about half the framing of the main house.

“It was a surgical intervention more than a complete tear down,” she said.

The original house was a collection of jagged forms that didn’t come together and resulted in wasted space.

“There were probably three or four different roof lines and a strange combination of a gable roof and a shed roof that weren’t harmonized well,” she said. “And there were some inside corners and indentations in the house that didn’t result in usable areas.”

Bernstein said her clients also preferred a home with simpler lines.

“I was partly working with the aesthetic intent of my clients, who wanted a building that was more like the farm and agricultural buildings of Sonoma, and those buildings have very simple shapes,” she said.

Bernstein found room for a guest suite in the garage and replaced the covered parking with a carport. She was able to create a bonus loft space above the new bathroom and closets.

The garage was so spacious she also found room to insert a utility hall between the pool and the main house, with a laundry area, places to hang wet towels and shelves for dry goods and storage. The late architect Louis Kahn called this space “the servant space” versus the “served space” in the main living area, as it provides the practical function of keeping clutter neatly hidden away.

The home originally had a larger entry porch that opened nearly into the kitchen. Bernstein moved the kitchen from the entry to another corner off the great room, made the front porch smaller and created a more defined entry with a mudroom, a place to remove shoes and coats to keep the rest of the house clean.

A bonus family room

Bernstein’s clients had not asked for an additional family room. But in evaluating a deck that was never used, she had the idea of removing it and incorporating that space into the house.

“It didn’t make sense to have a deck there. The owners thought they were never going to spend time there. The view was on the other side. It wasn’t sunny and it wasn’t appealing,” Bernstein said.

Instead, she finished off the corner and created a second living area for TV watching or reading.

“It’s the overflow quiet space,” Bernstein explained. “It’s what many families want. When you have just one main living space with a lot of activity going on, you want to have a quiet space where you can close the door. Especially during COVID ... when people are spending so many hours as a family together.”

One of the mistakes made in older homes is that they frequently fail to take advantage of beautiful views and are built as little fortresses against nature rather than extensions of the outdoors. Bernstein opened up the views in the Orchard House with the wall of sliding glass doors that offer an unbroken vista of the countryside. The original kitchen had no access to the outside. Now sliding doors lead to an outdoor dining area under a trellis.

Start with a beautiful property

An old home always can be updated. But you can’t create natural features and attractive views. Bernstein said the 3-acre property on which the Orchard House sits is beautifully layered and unfolds from the road, from a woodland of conifer and cypress trees down to the home, with an orchard and spectacular views on the opposite side.

“The lesson for people is that the first principle of a great project is a great site,” Bernstein said. “You can repair and fix a building. The second principle is to be smart about how you use a building. Think not just about square footage but smart square footage. You don’t need more square footage to have a house. What makes a smaller house feel bigger is how many different relationships it has to the outdoors. Every single side of this house has a direct connection to the outside. It makes the house feel open.”

Bernstein collaborated closely with landscape architect Jan Longwell to ensure that the outer spaces integrated seamlessly with the home. Longwell was able to save about half the old Gravenstein apple trees on the property. Those that were old or diseased were replaced with ‘Red Fuji’ and ‘Pink Lady’ apple varieties grafted to a drought- and high temperature-resistant rootstock. Exotic shrubs under the oaks were replaced with native California fescue.

To save on water, the terrain is graded to capture roof runoff and rainwater to irrigate the apple orchard. Water is directed through a shallow swale between the pool and the house to a deep gravel trench that holds water during heavy rains and slowly releases it to the apple orchard at the lower edge of the property.

Longwell, who received an Honor Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects for the project, also incorporated raised beds for food crops.

The project was completed in 2017 but before the family could move in the Tubbs fire struck. They wound up making the new house available for a family who had lost theirs in the disaster.

“The project has a lot of love in it. They’re really a lovely family,” Bernstein said. “They’re so generous with their friends and extended family, and their intent is to make this a productive place for the community as well as themselves.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

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